I was on the phone one day with my friend Brandon. Brandon’s a writer, been a serious one for a lot longer than I have, so whenever I get him in a conversation, I drop a little, “So what’re you working on?” question somewhere in the middle of things, a little bait, to see if maybe he’ll bite and spill the beans.
“Oh, I’m just reading, mostly.” The kind of answer that drives me nuts.
So I said, “Well, what are you reading?”
He told me he was picking out certain authors, and then reading everything that author had ever written. (I think at the time, he was tackling Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, and Ian McEwan.) I freaked out a little bit, and said, “Jesus, man, how disciplined of you! I can’t even finish a novel!”
So I hung up later, and got to thinking about his project. A few days earler, I’d read a line of advice from G.S.: “Find two or three writers that you’re really excited about. Follow their lineage back. Know everything about them. Immerse yourself in those writers.” This really clicked with me.
Since I started working in a library, I’ve been on book overload. I can get any book, anytime. No limits. Always a bad idea. So much to read. So little time. Really overwhelming. But this, this was a really great idea: Take it slow and steady. Saturate yourself with a writer’s work. Figure out who means the most to you right now, and then read who meant the most to them. No problem.
But how to begin? A list seemed too linear. What I needed was a map.
I’ve always been a nut about genealogy. When I was in undergrad, Brandon gave me a book of Carver stories. I fell in love with them. Then I found out our teacher had been taught by John Gardner, the same John Gardner who taught Ray Carver. I started building this goof-ball lineage in my mind…that I was somehow inheriting what had come before me.
A family tree!
So once in a while, when I’m feeling lost, feeling a little schizophrenic in my reading habits, I’ll draw a dorky map like the one above, who I’ve read, who I should read.
Where I am, where I should be going.