By Azuka Onwuka
Even though I teach people how to be better writers, yet whenever they ask me what they need to do to write well, there is one thing I never fail to tell them to do. That thing is to read novels … voraciously. I make it clear to them that novel-reading is fundamental. Note that I don’t just tell them to read voraciously. I single out reading of novels.
Other types of books are good. Magazines, newspapers and journals are also good. But if you want to write in a compelling manner; if you want your readers to read your works from start to finish; if you want to hold your audience captive; if you want to entertain your audience rather than just educate them and bore them stiff, the solution is simple: read novels.
And what type of novels are we talking about? Any type of novel would do. Any novel that agrees with your spirit. Any novel that has an interesting story. Any novel that can hold you captive. Read as many as possible. Read them all the time. Soak yourself in the narrative. In a couple of years, you will see the impact.
Why is novel-reading this magical? First, of all the essay forms, the narrative is the most gripping. Of all the books available on earth, only stories can make someone miss one’s meal or appointment or sleep. Other forms of writing in essay form (descriptive, argumentative, informative, etc,) can excite the reader, but the reader can always pause to attend to other things. But a captivating story can keep the reader awake all night. Something magical happens to the reader while this is going on. Even the reader will not be aware that anything is happening within. That was why Jesus taught with parables. You may forget a piece of advice, but it is hard to forget a story. Anytime you remember the story, you remember the advice embedded in it. The story makes the advice even more attractive and appealing.
Secondly, stories are read for fun. Other forms of writing are usually meant to educate. Unlike other forms of writing, a novel does not announce that it wants to teach anything. Readers therefore don’t feel they are studying when they are reading a story. The message a novel passes is subtle but it is difficult to forget.
Furthermore, it is only in stories that a reader comes across dialogue or conversation. When people communicate in real life, they don’t use the statements seen in essays. But they use the dialogue they find in stories. “Why has the doctor not come in today?” is a question that can be used or adapted to a real-life situation. That teaches a reader that it is not correct to say, “The doctor have not come,” or “The doctor has came.” Nothing teaches the correctness of language like the novel. The best book on grammar and composition does not come close to the innate language-teaching capacity of novels. It is superb because it does its job subtly. It does not announce that it wants to teach grammar and its rules. It just ingrains it in the reader effortlessly.
In addition, the novel feeds the reader with a surfeit of words and their usage. Most times, the reader does not need to check the meaning of such words in the dictionary. Imagine reading a passage describing an avalanche or a tsunami. In spite of having not come in contact with such a word before, the reader can visualise it and remember it forever. Like that, the reader amasses a lot of words as well as figures of speech. These words and expressions are engraved in the reader’s subconscious. The reader may not even know that they are there. It is only when the reader wants to write or speak that these words start crawling out to the reader’s surprise. Most times, the reader has so many options to use to describe a thing that confusion may even set in. The bottom line is that a person who reads novels voraciously never lacks words. Reading of novels gives one a rich vocabulary.
Because of the command of language that novel-reading confers on readers of novels, they are usually confident to speak. A heart filled with confidence – not arrogance – produces compelling writing. Such a mind is not shy to explore and display.
Also, it is through novels that one can visit different countries and cities, experience different cultures, learn different professions, experience different climates and weather, get into the minds of different types of people and have various experiences that one may never be able to experience in real life. With such knowledge of different spheres of life, a novel reader is always filled with ideas. Any time something crops up, a novel reader has a parallel experience from a novel to draw from. The mind of a reader of novels always imagines things, creates scenarios and brings different perspectives to issues, thereby adding some freshness to matters.
My survey of 30 years has shown that a person who reads a newspaper everyday may be well-informed about happenings in the nation and the world, but cannot compete in the competence of spoken and written language with a person who reads at least a novel a week. I have never seen anyone who reads novels voraciously that is not wonderful in speech and writing. And when a person reads novels and non-fiction, such a person becomes not just well-rounded but terrific.
Therefore, at whatever age, if you want to be an artistic writer, read a novel a week. It did wonders for the great writers of the world. It did wonders for a village boy like me whose parents never finished primary school. Any time I teach people how to write well, I recommend the voracious reading of novels. Once there is such a foundation, other things become easier.
When I finished elementary school and was going for a holiday while waiting for the common entrance examination result that would usher me into a secondary school, my elder brother gave me some novels, which included Chike and the River by Chinua Achebe, Eze Goes to School by Onuora Nzekwu and Michael Crowder, and Animal Farm by George Orwell. I started with Animal Farm but the language was beyond my comprehension. By then, I had never read any novel except My Book of Bible Stories. Therefore, my vocabulary was tenuous.
I dropped Animal Farm and went for Chike and the River. It thrilled me. I read Eze Goes to School. It captivated me. I went back to Animal Farm but still could not go beyond the first page. Upon my return from my holiday, I searched for other small novels in my elder brother’s library like Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. From there I began to borrow or exchange novels with classmates and friends. The more novels I read, the more I wanted.
Something magical happened to me. My written English improved. My spoken English improved. My vocabulary exploded. My horizon and imagination widened. My fear of addressing the public evaporated. Teachers began to use my scripts as examples in class.
For those who have a poor attitude towards novel-reading, let 2023 be a year of turning a new leaf. If we must bring back the book in Nigeria and Africa; if we must improve on the writing skills of people, novel-reading holds the key. And just as it is said that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, I say that a novel a week makes the pen speak.
You can follow the Author on Twitter: @BrandAzuka