The Danger in Reading Finished Works
On writing · Jul 3, 2019

The Danger in Reading Finished Works

There is a hidden danger in reading as inspiration, because most of what we read are finished works.

Whether its novels, short stories, or essays, each piece of writing has gone through countless rounds of revisions. But when writing something new, you spend all your time in a piece of unfinished work. Until the very end, but then, you’re no longer working on it, are you?

A book is perfect information—the words laid bare for perusal. This is in contrast to an object like an iPhone, whose parts are hidden and unknowable. You might think that studying the string of golden words from your favorite author can reveal their secrets. But there is a hidden element: the revisions. It is in this process where the author struggled with structure, tone, the arcs of the characters in the story, the themes. Sure, these are present in the words, but they aren’t broken down neatly into its components.

It’s a gestalt: a mixing of paints that produces a wholly new color.

In Borges’ short story, Library of Babel, there exists a library which contains all possible books of length 410 pages. One theme he touches on is the desperate writers who search the halls for the great book that they will write. If they simply found it on the shelves, then they can publish it and be revered. But how would you even recognize your future book? You’d likely glide right past it. It’s the journey to writing your book that is key. It can’t be “found.”

Now, when I study finished works, I try to understand the form beneath the prose. Additionally, I try to read as many unfinished works as I can. Watching the evolution of early drafts from my writing group often reveals deeper insights into craft.