My Reading Goals: Books I’ve Read in 2017

As we reach the end of 2017, it’s a good time to look back on our achievements over the past year. Back in January, I set another goal to read 10 books for the Goodreads Reading Challenge, and though I’m still technically working on it, I’m optimistic about reaching my goal again!

So following two January posts on the ten books I wanted to read this year and a midyear progress report in July, here’s my final report on my reading challenge goals for 2017. Enjoy!

2017 Reading Goal: 10 books

Total books read in 2017: 8 books (80%)

Books I planned to read this year and did

  1. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
  2. A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin
  3. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
  4. 1984, by George Orwell

Books I planned to read this year but didn’t

  1. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
  2. The Martian, by Andy Weir
  3. Shogun, by James Clavell
  4. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
  5. StarTalk, by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Books I read this year but didn’t plan to

  1. I Am Pusheen the Cat, by Claire Belton
  2. High Performance Paperback, by Ray Brehm and Jim Molinelli
  3. You Are A Writer, by Jeff Goins
  4. The Adventure, by Jennifer M Zeiger

Books I’m still reading

  1. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
  2. Creating Character Arcs, by K.M. Weiland
  3. The Business of Writing & Editing, by Sagan Morrow

And last but not least…

My Favorite Book of the Year: 1984, by George Orwell

What about you? Did you set any reading goals this year? Were you able to meet them? What were your favorite books of the year?

5 Ways Reading Makes You a Better Writer

Search for tips on how to be a better writer and you’ll find this piece of advice anywhere: read. It’s no secret that reading is good for you, but no one benefits more from reading books than people who want to write their own. Reading can teach you a lot about the craft of writing, so if you really want to improve your skills, start by expanding your library. Books are among your greatest tools for writing success!

So to elaborate on the second point of my list of good writing habits, here are five ways that reading makes you a better writer. Enjoy, and best of luck in your writing career!

5 Ways Reading Makes You a Better Writer

1) Reading teaches you the basics of story structure.

Reading Benefit - Story StructureLet’s start with the obvious, shall we? If you want to learn how to write a story, the best way to start is by reading one. It’s as simple as that—so simple, in fact, that we already learned this lesson as children!

Think about the last time you read a fairy tale or watched a Disney movie. Notice that these stories always have a very basic plot structure: Hero enters, Villain causes Conflict, Hero fights Villain, Hero defeats Villain, everyone lives Happily Ever After. Doesn’t get any simpler than that, does it?

Dramatic structure refers to these steps as exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Of course, not all stories will follow exactly the same outline—you don’t always need a villain to create conflict, for example—but regardless of content, they will invariably have structure. Reading many books in various genres will reveal what all stories have in common, and that’s the first step toward becoming a master of fiction!

2) You learn what works in a story (and what doesn’t).

Reading Benefit - What Works in a StoryAfter learning the basics of story structure, the next step is to learn how to write a good story. This is easier said than done, which is why it’s important to read as many good books as possible. Only by understanding what works in other writers’ stories can you figure out how to improve yours.

Now I know what you’re thinking: If art is subjective and everyone has different tastes, how can you know which books are “good”? The only way to be sure is by reading as many as you can and deciding for yourself what makes a story worth reading. An excellent piece of advice for beginning writers is to start by writing what you like, and you can’t know what you like unless you read!

Of course, bad books can be just as eye-opening as good ones. Who among us hasn’t try to slog their way through a terribly written novel with flat characters and boring plot points? I know it sounds like torture, but the good news is that reading a bad book isn’t a complete waste of time: by recognizing the flaws that turn you off to someone else’s story, you’ll know what to avoid in yours. In short: Be the next J.K. Rowling, not the next Stephenie Meyer!

3) You get a better sense of how to write in your genre.

Reading Benefit - Genre WritingWhile reading is good in general, reading certain types of stories can be especially beneficial for writers. Every genre has its distinct traits, so reading in your genre of choice can teach you specific writing techniques that you couldn’t pick up from other books.

If you want to write fantasy, read series like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings to learn how to incorporate magic into your world in a logical and believable way. If you choose dystopian fiction, books like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, or The Hunger Games will help you understand how to write a future society based on a single drastically different detail. Read Stephen King‘s stories to learn how to write thrilling suspense and horror, or read Jane Austen for a sense of how to write good romantic and historical fiction.

Whatever genre you choose to write in, read those types of books until you feel confident you can write a good story that fits the style… and then keep on reading! So long as you continue indulging in books, you’ll find that you’ll never stop learning for the rest of your writing career. Your stories can only keep getting better!

4) Books expand your imagination.

Reading Benefit - ImaginationWhen I started reading as a little kid, it opened my entire world to hundreds of new possibilities. My love of books inspired me to start writing when I was nine years old, and I’ve never looked back. I couldn’t tell you how many of my favorite story ideas have come from reading; to this day, no matter what kind of stories I write, I can always find some ideas from books I love and influence from my favorite authors in them!

Reading books is a great way to battle writer’s block because books are a rich source of ideas. You don’t have to outright copy other writers’ ideas, of course—in fact, you shouldn’t—but emulating the concepts and styles of writers you admire will help you develop more original ideas of your own in the long run.

So whenever you’re starved for ideas, pick up a novel and see what jumps off the page. You’d be surprised how many creative new ideas are hiding in plain sight on your shelf!

5) Reading replenishes your writing energy.

Reading Benefit - Writing EnergyDespite all the previous points on this list, you don’t really need any other reason to read than the fact that it’s fun! Let’s face it, we all need regular breaks from our work, even when that work is our life’s passion (like writing). If you’re just not feeling the words flow, there’s no shame in stepping away from your story for a while to read someone else’s!

Reading has been proven to relieve stress and reduce anxiety, which is extra helpful for writers. What writer hasn’t felt stressed after hours of struggling with creative blocks or self-doubt, right? (I know I have.) Even if you are feeling relaxed and productive, fiction is a great escape from mundane routine. We’ve all had to recharge after long stretches of writing, and if you’re going to pause anyway, why not use that time to indulge in a hobby that will help you get better at it?

So the next time you feel drained of the energy to write, try picking up a book. You may find it’s just the thing you need to get you back on your writing streak!

What are your thoughts on these benefits of reading? How has reading made you a better writer?

Photo by Michał Grosicki on Unsplash

Off The Bookshelf: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Last year, I reached my first-ever Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of ten books, most of which were historical fiction. I’ve already covered Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen in my Off the Bookshelf segment, so today I’m switching over to another author whose novel I really enjoyed: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde!

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

Summary

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel written by Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. First published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in July 1890, the novel exists in three versions: the censored 13-chapter edition published in the magazine in 1890, the revised 20-chapter book edition published in 1891, and the uncensored 13-chapter edition submitted to the magazine with all of Wilde’s original material intact. The story follows the moral corruption and downfall of Dorian Gray, a handsome yet narcissistic young man whose vanity leads him to wish that a painting of himself will age in his stead. After his wish comes true, Dorian succumbs to a hedonistic lifestyle of vice and sin from which his insatiable desire for pleasure leaves him little chance to escape.

Review

If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that! – Dorian Gray

A brief disclaimer: Because Wilde’s novel exists in three different forms, each one differs slightly from the others, in some cases affecting the plot. The version I read is the 1891 20-chapter book, so this is the edition that will be referenced throughout this review.

Movie poster for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

The Picture of Dorian Gray has often been compared to the Faust story, in which a dissatisfied scholar sells his soul to the Devil for unlimited knowledge and pleasure. Similarly, in a moment of weakness and newfound vanity, Dorian offers up his soul for the chance to remain young and handsome forever. In response to this wish, the painting becomes a mirror of Dorian’s soul and begins reflecting the effects of his actions that his body will now be spared. This inciting incident plays into the themes of valuing youth and beauty above all else and the consequences of choosing pleasure over virtue.

One of the most prominent themes in the book is the conflict between morality and pleasure. Although Dorian initially struggles with his new philosophy, his selfish desires ultimately overpower his guilt: after his romance with the young actress Sibyl Vane ends tragically, the subtle change in his portrait’s face proves his actions will have no visible consequence, as the painting will bear all the marks of his sins for him. After accepting Sibyl’s death as an artistic personification of tragedy, Dorian is free to pursue pleasure without risk and spends the next several years of his life indulging in various forms of gratification. Only in the final chapters of the story does he come to question if perpetual youth was worth the price of his soul.

Indeed, the fact that his artistic lifestyle costs him his soul is what makes Dorian Gray such an enigmatic character. Having given up his emotional depth, the protagonist’s true personality remains a mystery to the reader throughout the story. One detail of the novel that makes this evident is the heavy color motif. So many descriptions in the novel involve color in some way, and while at first I dismissed these vivid descriptions as the flowery writing of a poet, I later recognized their allusion to the main character’s internal conflict. The paradox of The Picture of Dorian Gray is that by giving up his soul for the pursuit of pleasure and the perpetuation of beauty, Dorian is no longer able to appreciate either—that is, in a world full of color and beauty, Dorian’s soulless existence is perpetually gray. Thus, Wilde’s novel—at least the revised version—supports the idea that art alone cannot bring happiness; one must have emotional depth in order to appreciate it.

From left to right: Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward (Dorian Gray, 2009)

Aside from Dorian, the story features two other important characters: Basil Hallward, the painter of the infamous picture, and Lord Henry Wotton, a witty aristocrat who advocates “New Hedonism”. Both are equally fascinated by Dorian’s beauty but stand at opposite ends of his moral spectrum: Basil represents conformity to moral standards while Lord Henry represents the temptation of sin. In this way, these two gentlemen play the roles of Dorian’s “shoulder angel and devil”, respectively, and personify the novel’s overarching conflict between virtue and hedonism: Basil sees only beauty in Dorian and encourages him to remain virtuous, while Lord Henry lauds his youth and persuades him to live for pleasure above all else. And although Dorian never escapes from the guilt the painter evokes in him, the fact that the story plays out far worse for Basil than for Lord Henry further supports the novel’s theme of beauty’s superiority over virtue.

Interestingly, The Picture of Dorian Gray presents an unusual example of an unscrupulous protagonist who repeatedly dodges moral justice. While Dorian influences several people to unfortunate ends throughout his life, he himself doesn’t get what he deserves for almost the entirety of the novel. While this may be an allusion to Wilde’s aesthetic beliefs, it’s more frequently interpreted as a comment on society’s superficiality and hypocrisy; although several rumors emerge about Dorian’s immoral exploits over the years, his peers nonetheless continue to accept him because he’s beautiful and, by all appearances, innocent. Yet as with any Faustian story, sin is ultimately punished in the end, thus completing the theme of eternal pleasure coming at an exceedingly high cost.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an intriguing novel, a mix of Gothic horror with social and artistic commentary that never seems to settle on a single form. Even the moral of the story is not so black and white as its similarity to the Faust fable would suggest, as the main character doesn’t suffer the consequences of his actions until the very end, and even then justice is brought about by his own hands. Yet by all accounts, with its enigmatic themes, poetic motifs, and structure of an unusual moral fable, Wilde has created nothing less than an outstanding and fascinating work of art.

Inspiration

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. – Oscar Wilde

In a strange meta twist, the most fascinating aspect of The Picture of Dorian Gray may actually be the author’s preface in the book edition. When Oscar Wilde first submitted his manuscript for publication, the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine censored the story, removing roughly 500 words without the author’s knowledge. Nevertheless, the novel was widely decried as a violation of public morality. A year later, upon publishing the revised book version, Wilde issued a preface to address these criticisms and defend his work, claiming in this artistic manifesto that the only point of art is to be beautiful, not to serve a moral purpose.

Dorian’s painting, before and after
(Image source: TV Tropes)

Yet in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the eponymous painting itself serves a moral purpose by shedding light on the high price of vanity. Despite the author’s advocacy of aestheticism, his novel suggests that art always contains some degree of meaning: though Dorian constantly tries to immerse himself in a purely artistic lifestyle, he can never escape the haunting lesson in the portrait that bares his corrupted soul. Thus, while he may not have written a truly aesthetic piece, Wilde has nonetheless created a stunning work of art that inspires a poetic theme: art and morality are perpetually intertwined.

As far as artistic inspiration, this novel certainly has its fair share of philosophy. One of the most intriguing aspects of the story is Lord Henry’s powerful influence over the naïve young Dorian. Although Lord Henry’s beliefs contrast heavily with the standards of his time, he speaks with such wit and persuasive language that one can’t help but be drawn to his ideas, however misguided they are. Indeed, the only character immune to these ideas is Basil, whose conventional mindset keeps him morally grounded but makes him utterly boring in the eyes of his impressionable muse. Reading Lord Henry’s speeches, I could easily understand how any weak-minded individual would embrace his poisonous philosophy, which thankfully is revealed to be shallow and impractical by the second half of the story. If anything, the novel is a cautionary tale about the consequences of trying to live such a hedonistic life: the pursuit of pleasure may satisfy the senses with each experience, but it still isn’t worth giving up one’s soul.

Overall, I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be an enjoyable and intriguing read. Its themes of morality, superficiality, and artistic living make it a notable addition to literature’s vast collection of moral fables. Yet the fact that Wilde was such a strong proponent of aestheticism raises the ultimate question: if his philosophy was to create “art for art’s sake”, should we really put so much weight on the moral themes of his only novel, or take a step back to simply glimpse these undertones while admiring the beauty of his work?

The Halfway Point: Progress Report on My 2017 Reading Goals

Yes, we’re already halfway through 2017! Amazing, isn’t it? Now that we’re in July, it’s once again time to assess our progress on our reading goals for the year. I’ll go first!

My 2017 Reading Goals

Like I did last year, I set a goal of ten books for the Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge, a reasonable goal for a relatively slow reader like me. So far, I’ve met half my goal for the year! I’ve also noticed a trend of more books from my to-read list in January actually reaching my have-read collection, as well as more nonfiction books making the list (thanks in no small part to my pursuit of a freelancing career).

I plan to write a more detailed report on my 2017 reading goals at the end of the year. In the meantime, here’s a brief review of the books I’ve read so far, am currently reading, and still plan to read:

Books I’ve read so far

  1. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
  2. A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin
  3. I Am Pusheen The Cat, by Claire Belton
  4. High Performance Paperback, by Ray Brehm and Jim Molinelli
  5. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Books I’m currently reading

  1. 1984, by George Orwell
  2. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
  3. You Are A Writer, by Jeff Goins
  4. The Business of Writing & Editing, by Sagan Morrow

Books I still plan to read

  1. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
  2. Arrival, by Ted Chiang
  3. StarTalk, by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Your turn! Any reading goals you’re still working toward this year? Which ones have you completed so far?

Off The Bookshelf: Sense and Sensibility

Back in January, I finally returned to my Off The Bookshelf segment with a review of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. So today, I’d like to continue my reviews by writing about the other Austen novel I read last year. Since I’ve definitely been enjoying reading her literature, there was really only one novel I could review next: Sense and Sensibility!

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

Summary

Sense and Sensibility was Austen’s debut novel, first published in London in 1811. The story follows sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood as they adjust to their new life with their widowed mother and younger sister, who have all been left impoverished after Mr. Dashwood’s death. Over the course of the narrative, the sisters experience love, romance, and heartbreak, and eventually come to realize that they must learn to master the delicate balance between sense and sensibility in order to achieve happiness.

Review

Though I wouldn’t say I liked it as much as Pride and Prejudice, I enjoyed Sense and Sensibility for Austen’s realistic take on romance and manners, seasoned with all her classic humor and wit. Much like in the author’s more popular novel, the main characters of this story are faced with the challenge of finding love in a world where their low income and social status put them at a severe disadvantage. What really sets this novel apart from its successor, however, is the comparison it draws between the tempers of Elinor and Marianne, who each occupy one extreme of the romance-realism spectrum.

Movie poster for Sense and Sensibility (1995)

As the title suggests, the most prominent theme in Sense and Sensibility is the contrast between good sense and overt sensitivity (known as sensibility back then). As the eldest Dashwood sister, Elinor has the best judgment in her family and is highly skilled at exercising good sense and composure. Her younger sister Marianne, on the other hand, has no control over her emotions and no desire to keep her overly sensitive demeanor in check, favoring romantic idealism over etiquette. This contrast between their personalities makes for several interesting situations throughout the story, but in the end both sisters learn the same valuable lesson: too much sense or sensibility only leads to unhappiness. Only after Elinor learns to open her heart to sensibility and Marianne learns to temper her spontaneity with sense do they both achieve their happy endings.

Another major theme in the book is the role of money and social standing in romance. Though her novels all have happy endings, Jane Austen was never one to tell an idealistic love story; in her view, even the truest love isn’t immune to the real-world obstacle of low income. In the most notable example, Marianne and Willoughby seem like a perfect match: they’re both romantic and outspoken about their opinions on art and love, and spend so much time together that everyone assumes they’re engaged before they even say a word. Unfortunately, being one of the author’s well-known “hero caricatures”, the charming Willoughby couldn’t be anything less than a scoundrel, and sure enough, his expensive tastes coupled with Marianne’s poverty lead him to jilt her for a wealthy young lady he doesn’t love. Funnily enough, the same obstacle of wealth turns out to be a saving grace for Edward Ferrars, who for most of the story finds himself honor-bound to a loveless engagement only to be saved at the end from said commitment by his disinheritance from his mother, leaving him free to give his heart to Elinor after his conniving fiancé abandons him. From beginning to end, wherever there are love and romance, the shadow of money looms in the background.

Overall, Sense and Sensibility is an enjoyable read that shows less-than-idealistic romance in a humorous light, as well as an interesting dynamic of character development between two polar opposite sisters. Just as Marianne learns from Elinor that excessive emotion can destroy one’s life, Elinor learns from Marianne that excessive repression of emotion leads to intense suffering and risk of abandonment. Still, in true Austen fashion, both sisters achieve their happy endings by the story’s conclusion, finding comfortable lives with gentlemen who can provide them with all the security and emotional fulfillment they desire. In this way, from her very first novel, the author reveals that despite all the realistic obstacles in its way, romance can still thrive in a world plagued with social barriers, a hope not yet forgotten in the modern age.

Inspiration

Much like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility offers a glimpse into the romantic and realistic elements of past life that have survived into the present. The novel also teaches a valuable lesson on the importance of both practicing good sense and being willingly sensitive, albeit a somewhat imbalanced one that favors sense. We shouldn’t give our emotions total control over our happiness, but we also shouldn’t be afraid to feel vulnerable in the pursuit of love. There are plenty of opportunities in life to be both sensible and sensitive; it’s all a matter of exercising the right judgment.

Though her novels often highlight the limitations placed on women in the society of her day, Jane Austen clearly had a way of demonstrating the strength that women have always had to succeed within their means. Because of that, I know I can always turn to one of her novels for inspiration on writing heroines with real personalities, issues, and aspirations. Whether you seek inspiration for historical fiction, realistic characters, or contrasting themes in human behavior, Sense and Sensibility is an excellent novel that warrants a place beside Pride and Prejudice on any Austen fan’s bookshelf.

Pin It on Pinterest

%d bloggers like this: