I just returned from a trip to England during which I read, for probably the fourth or fifth time since my childhood, a book I have always loved: Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Part of my goal for this read was to physically experience the book’s setting. To trace Pip’s steps through the dirty London streets and walk along the Thames where he rows his boat to check on Magwitch. To shop in Covent Garden where Herbert Pocket goes to get the best fruit to welcome his new roommate. To visit the Temple courts where Jagger lives and works. To see with my own eyes Newgate prison—which doesn’t exist anymore, I’m sorry to say, although there is a sign marking where it once stood.
My bigger goal, though, was to read a book I had long loved in a completely new way: as a writer reads. Reading as a writer is a kind of dissection, really—not just of the work, to figure out how it works, but of my own psyche as a reader. What is it that has always enthralled me about this book? I ask myself. Why have I returned to it again and again in the course of a lifetime? I examine the story, the details, the transitions, the very sentences of Dickens’ masterpiece, looking for applicable clues about how to make my own writing successful.
There’s no better writing teacher to be found, no better course of instruction or writing program, than a book you loved as a child and continue to love in adulthood. For me, that’s Great Expectations and Robinson Crusoe, The Good Earth, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and the dark fairytales of Helena Nyblom. And works of nonfiction like Helen Keller’s autobiography and Jade Snow Wong’s account of growing up the fifth daughter of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and a hagiography I wore out as a child called Little Pictorial Lives of Saints. There are more, each one a teacher with the rare pedagogical skill of educating not by presenting something new but by confirming and demonstrating old truths.
Reading as a writer, I learned from Dickens that even the most honorable characters are most engaging and memorable in their failures and absurdity. I knew this. We all know this. It’s why Peter and Thomas are my favorites of Jesus’ followers. And it’s why Esau is so impossible to hate. (I don’t know how God manages it!) Through their faults, they become more believable, more real. Jesus himself, though without fault, becomes 100% human in moments when he seems least likeable, such as when he balks at healing the demon-possessed daughter of a Canaanite woman who argues that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15.27 NRSV).
Each character in Great Expectations is a surprise. Miss Havisham experiences remorse. Estella confesses genuine emotions to Pip. Jaggers ends up being as much a father to fatherless Pip as he is a heartless professional. Pip moves from fear and repulsion toward Magwitch to concern and compassion. Through such surprises, Dickens helps me find the life-giving contradictions and winsome growth opportunities in my own characters.
Dickens also taught me how to keep my reader focused through blunt meta references to “the last chapter” that I would never have recommended to my own students. He was writing serially, after all, so his readers would have needed more help remembering what had gone on in the previous issue than the contemporary reader of the assembled chapters would need. Still, it’s a helpful technique. And referencing one’s previous remarks and chapters is certainly freeing.
Students in my writing courses often complain about my “reading as a writer” assignments. I’m always wanting them to apply what they learn from their favorite writers—or from one of my favorites—to their own writing, and I’m never pleased with their flowery, laudatory assessments of their favorite books’ writerly techniques.
“You’re reading like a literary critic!” I rant. “You’re reading like a teenager in love. I want you to read like a writer!”
It is the hardest way to read, I think, but surely, once you’ve read a book the first time through, the most useful. Once my students get how to do it, they thank me.
“Don’t thank me,” I tell them. “Thank the author!”
In case you’re wondering, reading as a writer won’t wreck the book for you. To the contrary: Discovering what made you love a book gives you a new appreciation for it—so much so that, if you’re anything like me, you’re eager to read the book again soon.