Read Ceaselessly

The greatest symbol of what writing is about is the full text version of the Oxford English Dictionary. The CD-ROM version is nice, but the physical enormity of the printed text gives a writer a sense of humility (if that is still possible), because the mountain to be scaled is the language. Auden used to sit on the first volume while at the dinner table, the better to stay even with language and with dinner. Any good teacher I've ever had—and the best was John McPhee—stressed the enormity of choice English provides, its capacity for clarity and ambiguity, dullness and thrill. It is the greatest invention ever devised (and re-devised). And, of course, the only way to get anywhere as a writer is to have read ceaselessly and then read some more. Pound (that rat) says somewhere that it is incredible to him that so many "poets" simply pick up a pen and start writing verse and call it poetry, while a would-be pianist knows full well how necessary it is to master scales and thousands of exercises before making music worthy of the name. Playing scales, for a writer, means reading. Is there any real writing that has no reading behind it? I don't think so.