The Writer as Student: Why You Need a Reading Syllabus

First, a confession: I’m a slow reader. It’s a curse because I know I’ll never finish all the amazing books out there (I even wrote a story, “What Happened in the Library”, where the narrator hired a reading clone). I’ve had to accept that I can only finish 1 or 2 books a month while other friends (you know who you are!) get through a book or two every week.

Seeing this as a weakness, my life was changed forever when I read and photocopied for posterity an article titled “The Intentional Reader” by Bob Hostetler in Poets and Writers back in 2000. The original is no longer available but here are two excerpts that together capture the essence of what I read back then: The Intentional Reader and Do You Plan Your Reading?

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Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce’s Ulysses

In the article, Hostetler encourages writers to intentionally read out of our comfort zones. This “intentional reading” is a potent way of keeping ourselves “schooled” and challenging our minds…and that will ultimately improve us as writers (and human beings). Too often we habitually reach for a certain style of book (because we like it!) or we read what was recommended/loaned by a friend (and if you are like me books by friends–woohoo!). While there is nothing wrong with reading spontaneously, it can keep us from challenging ourselves as readers because those books are never at the top of our list/bedside pile. And sadly, without a clear action plan to purposely challenge ourselves as readers and approach different/more intimidating texts…it usually doesn’t happen. Not because we don’t have good intentions to read this or that book or author or more about that topic…but because time and reading have a way of slipping away from us.
Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce’s Ulysses

So… the Intentional Reading Syllabus is an action plan, a way to take charge of our own continuing education.

For many years I created my reading syllabus as part of my New Year’s Resolution (and that works great!), but it works equally as well at the start of a new school cycle. As teachers and professors are putting together their syllabuses and outcomes for their students, it’s a natural time for writers to do the same, setting clear reading goals for yourself so you always know what to read next as well as why you are reading it.

Inspired by Hostetler’s original list, and refined over the last 20 years, here’s my modified Reading Syllabus Template (feel free to steal it!)

·         3 books by authors I’ve never read before

·         2 classics

·         2 rereads

·         1 new book by a favorite author

·         2 books on writing

·         2 nonfiction books on topics I know nothing about

·         1 book of poetry

·         1 memoir

·         1 biography

·         1 children/YA book

·         1 play

·         1 book in translation

·         1 mule choker (Hostetler’s term: i.e. a book over 700 pages)

That’s 18 books. Add to that various other books that come up during the year and that’s about all I can handle.

What I’ve found after doing this practice for almost two decades is that even if I don’t get to everything on my list, having the list at all keeps me focused, consciously choosing to read away from what is familiar or comfortable and into what is not.

So, as the new school year approaches, consider making your own Reading Syllabus for the year. Then print it out and hang it above your desk or work area.

Because, if you’re like me, you get crazy satisfaction from checking things off a list.

Happy Reading!
xoxo