I’ve got a hopeless memory. The names of characters in the novel I’ve just read fade rapidly as I take up a new one. The plot dissolves; I cannot quote favourite lines. Sometimes, after six months or a year I can’t even explain what it was about! Embarrassing, when someone wants to swap book notes with me. Shameful, when I think about how so much of what I read surely permeates my own less perfect drafts.
And yet I can always recall how I felt about a novel.
I was reminded of this on hearing about the death of Gabriel García Márquez this week. When I was twenty I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Twice. I also read everything else by him that I could lay my hands on, exhilarated and fizzing because they showed me a different way to think about writing. Then I moved on, discovered other writers and the process of forgetting began.
But yesterday I opened up my battered old paperback that had first kept me company on a sleepless train journey to Spain and in which still lay my ticket stub. And, as I re-read the first page, the names Macondo and Buendía grabbed me and shook me all over again.
When I sit down to write – and I think it is the same for everyone – I am influenced by all the books that have meant something to me over the years, even if I can’t recall the details. A great novel or short story or poem enters the reader and resides there, often hidden (in my case) but nonetheless enriching.
Writers have to be readers, above all else. First there is the reading for pleasure and wonder. Then maybe there’s re-reading – how did the author do that?
It’s hard sometimes to find the time to read when our own stories beckon and we worry about being ‘too’ influenced by someone else’s work. Yet the fact is this is where I learn. This is where I see how I feel about words.