I often feel anxiety about the overwhelming amount of books I want to read, knowing I won’t live long enough to read them all. This has been a problem for all humans throughout history—the race against time—but the problem grows exponentially over time as the amount of content continually increases.
The internet has multiplied this effect even further. Fifty years ago, it was difficult and time-consuming, but someone could conceivably read all the classics of literature—at least in the genre of their choice, say science fiction. As a child in the 1960s, someone like Neil Gaiman could have read all of the greats from Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, and Robert A. Heinlein. Not only were there significantly fewer science fiction books at that time, there was less competition for entertainment—only a few television channels, no home video or movies, and of course no YouTube or internet. As a child interested in science fiction, Gaiman could easily read every science fiction book in his library. So he had a full knowledge of the genre which enabled him to use that knowledge to write great books himself.
What about the aspiring writers today? Not only do libraries have more science fiction books, we also have access, through the internet, to every science fiction book ever published. So how do you decide which to read? Do you read all of the books Gaiman read as a child, plus all of Gaiman’s books, plus all of his contemporaries, plus all of the new authors today who are both traditionally and self published?
That’s impossible. There simply isn’t enough time for anyone to do all of that, even if you devoted all your time to reading books, let alone writing books of your own. There isn’t enough time to read all the classics and all the contemporaries. With normal readers, the decision is much easier: simply read whatever you like. But with writers, there is more of an obligation to read those writers that came before you—if for no other reason than your readers will have. So what is a writer to do if they want to be well-read?
The simple answer would be to read the best of the best, from both the past and present. The cream always rises to the top, so read those books that have passed that filter. Except I’ve also greatly enjoyed lesser-acclaimed books. If you only read the cream at the top, you’ll miss out on some hidden gems. Still, you can’t go wrong with reading the consensus classics that have withstood the test of time.
On the other hand, it might be better to focus on newer books, with the reasoning being, those writers will have been influenced by all the classic books they read. So in a way, by reading a Neil Gaiman book you are also gaining the knowledge of the things he learned from Bradbury, Lovecraft, and Tolkien. Gaiman has taken the lessons he learned from his influences and incorporated them into his work. Then, Gaiman fans can do the same today, incorporating his ideas and lessons (which also include the writers who influenced him) into their work.
Of course you can and should still read both classics and modern books, but if you had to choose, the modern classic may be more worthwhile. Plus, modern writers will be able to update the language and make the older stories and lessons more relatable to modern readers. I often find the content and ideas in older books to be profound and brilliant, but the language in which they are written is outdated and laborious to get through.
In a sense, all art is a reinterpretation of the art that came before, updated to reflect the current culture. In that sense, reading newer books would be more productive because you’d be absorbing, through osmosis, all the books from the past that author read. That’s the way it’s always been. Therefore, it’s the writer’s prerogative to be as widely read as possible and know the full history of literature. But as I said, that’s becoming harder and harder for each new generation of writer. Either way, it’s getting more difficult for modern writers to be experts and read every book in their genre, and it only gets more difficult with each passing year.
Personally I read both, alternating between modern and classic books. Though in a way I also split the difference by reading “modern classics”—acclaimed books from the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. They are more modern in language and style, but they have also been around long enough to have stood the test of time. You often see books hit the bestseller list in the month it’s released then it’s completely forgotten about. But if a book is at least ten years old and is still being read and talked about, having developed a cult following, then it’s more apt to still be relevant in another ten years and beyond.
There a potential solution to the problem of too many books—artificial intelligence. Either through brain implants like Elon Musk‘s Neuralink or some kind of post-singularity mind-upload technology, humans could attain the ability to read a book instantly. Download the file to your memory and it would be like you read the entire thing—just like in The Matrix when Neo learns kung fu. When that happens, it will be easier than ever for a writer to be a well-read expert in their field. You can read every book ever, something no writer has ever been able to do, which can only help make writers and the books they write better—whatever form “books” may take in the future. Until then, life is short, so read whatever you want.