• “The smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting 'Scrooge McDuck' comics.”—Salon.com
  • A time-hopping, continent-spanning salmagundi of genres.”
  • “These books have to be word-of-mouth books because they're too weird to describe to anybody.”
    —Jackie Cantor, Diana's first editor

How Do You Read?

How do you read?

I get frequent questions—from readers and interviewers—asking me whether I read. My initial response is always, “What, are you crazy?”, but I usually suppress this in favor of something more politic, like, “How can anybody not read?”

People do (not read, I mean), of course, horrifying as this concept is (my husband once had an employee who told him that her daughter had to read a book for school and so she had rented a copy for the child. Having been in her house, I’d noticed that she owned no books (totally creepy), but to have no idea of what or where the public library is?). But come on—to ask a professional novelist whether he or she reads?

Now, I do hear from other novelists who say that they can’t read books in their own genre, or can’t read while actively writing, and that makes some sense (I don’t read time-travel books, myself). But if you don’t read something, how do you refine your sensibilities, improve your craft, or merely fill up your creative well by listening to the lyrical song of someone else’s words?

Let’s put it this way: If there are any novelists who just don’t read, I probably don’t want to read what they write.

A refinement of the “Do you read?” question comes along every now and then, and this one is kind of interesting: “HOW do you read? I used to love reading, but now I have a job, kids, a house, etc., and I just seem to have no time to read anymore. I know you have a busy life, too, so I just wanted to ask, how do you manage to read?”

Now, that’s a question of logistics, isn’t it? So I took a look at “how” I read, physically. Because I do read pretty much all the time, and normally consume 3-4 books a week (lots more, when traveling), not counting whatever I’m reading for research. So how does it work?

Well, for starters, I always have at least one book within reach. If you’re accustomed to only reading in your favorite chair, when you have two or three hours of leisure, with a good light on and a glass of sweet tea beside you, then yeah, having a family is going to inhibit you some. I read everywhere. All the time.

I have a book on the counter while I’m cooking; I can’t (or shouldn’t {cough}) read while chopping vegetables, but I can certainly read while tearing up lettuce, sautéing garlic, or browning meat—and once something’s on the stove or in the oven, I just need to be there. No problem in reading while waiting for things to brown, cook, simmer, etc. (actually, I do pushups on my kitchen counter while reading during kitchen lag-time—I can read the back Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal and do 75 pushups (the sissy kind; I have weak wrists) while waiting for the dogs to eat their breakfast. (Why am I waiting for dogs to eat? Because the fat one eats faster and will muscle his brother out of the last quarter of his meal if I’m not watching)).

I have dogs; my son has dogs, and brings them down with him when he comes to visit. I take the rest of the Wall Street Journal to my office with me and whenever the dogs need to go out, I bring a chunk of it along—or if I’ve finished the paper, I grab my Kindle and read whatever’s up on that while the hounds burrow for gophers or play Questing Beast in the long grass and tumbleweeds.

I have a book on the bathroom counter and read while brushing teeth, applying sunscreen, and performing ablutions. I take the book into my closet and read while I’m getting dressed.

I try to walk five miles a day (and manage it about four days a week; get 2-3 miles on other days), with and without dogs. I have audiobooks on my iPod, and listen to these while walking (on my second re-listen of the entire Aubrey/Maturin series, by Patrick O’Brian—great books, one of my all-time favorite series).

If I have books for review (I do occasional reviews for a newspaper) or waiting for possible blurbs (there’s a small stack of ARCs from publishers), I pick one up whenever I go downstairs and take it along on errands (always take a book to a doctor’s appointment or the post office, is my advice).

Poetry books, and nonfiction books that aren’t for research, but just interesting—I’m reading Simon Winchester’s KRAKATOA at the moment—I leave in the bathroom, and read in small, digestible chunks. That enables me to comprehend everything easily, as I’m seldom dealing with more than a page at a time. {g} Have had KRAKATOA in there for two weeks; about halfway through the book, and now know all kinds of fascinating stuff about plate tectonics, with THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS and John Mark Eberhart’s poetry collection, NIGHT WATCH, waiting for their turn.

The only time (other than traveling) I really read without doing something else is for a brief period after dinner, while my husband watches TV, and for a still briefer period after I’ve tucked him in bed, when the dogs and I lie down on the Taos bed, and I read for 10-30 minutes before falling asleep.

It’s sort of like the way I write. Not in concentrated stretches of 4-5 hours (I do know some writers who claim that’s the only way they can write, and more power to them), but in stretches of an hour at a time, two or three or four times a day (depending where I am in the course of a book; toward the end, I really do write nonstop for ten or twelve hours—bar bathroom breaks (during which I read) and meals (ditto)—but that phase luckily doesn’t last long).

For today: Just finished Charlaine Harris’s new Sookie Stackhouse novel, DEAD RECKONING (good as always) this morning, 35% of the way through Anne Perry’s TREASON AT LISSON GROVE, which I picked up right afterward, four more pages about subduction zones in KRAKATOA, and about 25 pages into the ARC of a thriller off the blurb pile. Plus entertaining stuff from WSJ about the medical maladies of historical characters and why birth-control pills make women marry less-masculine men (also good op-ed piece by a British writer on pusillanimous response of Brits to killing of bin Laden).

Now mind, I don’t watch television. That helps.

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167 Responses »

  1. Since I learned to read at about age 6, I can not remember a time that I have not had a book in my hand, or near to hand. I can still hear one or the other of my parents complaining that I always had my nose in a book, while at the same time, they bought me anything I could devour. My dad a the reasoning that he didn’t care what we read, just so long as we read. He would buy us comic books by the bundles, my mom toted us to the library, our favorite summer time hang out. Did they censor what we read, nope. I learned some of my best life lessons from reading ,”True Story’, and ‘True
    I must tell you Diana that the first of your books I read was “A Breath of Snow & Ashes’ The cover sounded pretty good, and I was looking for a book to sink my teeth into! Those short little novels I can go thru in a day & less, I liked this book for the sheer weight of it! Then I discovered it was part of your series, and I was hooked.
    I have never written to a author, and I’ve read thousands. I love this story you have created! At my ripe age of 57, it takes something great to capture my imagination, and you have!
    Thank you again!
    As Always,
    Your Number One Fan,

  2. Diana, to dig even deeper, I’m curious to know how you read _the_ words, lol. Do you read word by word or do you scan by line, para, or page? And do you ever skip ahead (or to the end) to get resolution and then go back to continue reading? (I have my own thoughts on this, but I’ll smile politely regardless of your answer ;) )

    • Dear Rach–

      I want to choke people who skip or turn to the end. (Since you ask. {g}) Whatever one may think about whether that’s “cheating” {g} or not–the author went to a LOT of trouble to engineer the book in order to achieve a specific pacing, rhythm, structure and impact (well, some authors go to more trouble than others, let’s say that {cough}). To ignore that and just go dipping into the book any old place, pulling out chunks and licking them, then putting sticky fingers back in, gumming up the pages and ruining the structure–it’s like seeing a perfect gingerbread house and ripping chunks out so the whole thing falls into a pile of crumbs. Still tasty, no doubt, but it’s destroying a beautifuly detailed, painstaking aesthetic for the sake of instant gratification. Still and all, if folk buy the book, they’re entitled to read it any old way they want–and there are a lot of people out there who lick the insides out of Oreo cookies.

      Personally, I read even bad books from beginning to end, because I want to see what the author intended–whether they accomplished that or not.

      • My thoughts EXACTLY! A good friend of mine and I have this debate frequently, because I feel compelled to set her on the righteous path of _reading_it_properly! Her retort is that she gets actual anxiety when the book is…creating questions (I call it: getting good), so skipping ahead gives her peace of mind to be able to enjoy it. The good news is that she was so caught up in Outlander that she couldn’t actually stop long enough to skip ahead and seek answers! Lol.

        In a similar vein, that’s why I was wondering if you scan read or read word-for-word. While speed readers still feel satisfied at the end of a book and claim to have digested the same details, I can’t imagine it to really be true, and therefore isn’t that also a diservice to an author? Can they really appreciate the details and imagery that were crafted? Or maybe that’s just my personal frustration clouding my eyes – eyes that can’t speed read at all!


      • Rach and Diana:

        I am one of those individuals that does sample the last few pages of any book I’m considering. I often listen to the end also…Perhaps it is because I don’t like surprises, or maybe it is because I am simply curious about the end. I find it encourages more focus and reflection on my part. The result is that I end up more engaged in what I perceive the author’s intention for writing the book.

        Of course, I could simply be kidding myself…but it does feel that way. But then again, I like cereal and salad dry without milk or dressing.

        Loretta Remington

  3. Omgosh. Between reading and audio books there is hardly a time when I’m not reading something the course of the day. Let’s see there is the 20 minute commute to and from work when at home, an hour when I’m traveling from my boyfriends (actual book or audio) . At work while working on data entry and trying to block out the noise of the office (audio), lunch break (actual book or audio if I’m also knitting), then take a break once home and read before bed, sometimes listen to audio if I can’t sleep. I don’t dare try to read a physical book while walking as I have a tendency to trip over my own feet.

    I’m a voracious reader, and having reading the Outlander Series, and listened to it more than once over the last few years I’m sure I could recite parts of your books. Right now I’m listening to Jim Butcher, and just downloaded the newest Charlaine Harris, and reading George RR Martin’s A Storm of Swords, sometime within the next month I’ll probably pick up Outlander again as I’m due for a read.

    I’m also lucky to have a boyfriend who loves to read if not as much as I do, still quite a bit, and we share a lot of books. But there was one night a few weeks ago, I fell asleep and he was still reading and was only 15 pages into the book at that time, when I woke up the next morning he had finished it!!! I’m so jealous I can’t do that anymore…. So I wonder if I’ll ever get him to read Outlander, I hope so.

  4. Amazing! I get so involved in the books I read, I have to wait a few days before picking up a new one…. this helps me ‘let go’ of the characters I just ‘lived’ with.

  5. If I had the choice to live 5 years longer – but without reading or die earlier, but with so many books to read I want – I will always decide: with books….

    The little girl of a friend learned reading by herself – she cannot wait until school began. She was the queen at preschool – because she was able to read what´s served for lunch….. her mother said: books are not an extra gift – books are like bread….and nobody should be hungry….

    • Wendy, I agree with your friend. Books are not an extra gift they are like bread. I will always buy my kids a book when they want one. We also of course go to the library but sometimes, you just want to own the book. Which creates a dilemma when it comes to storing them. .

      • Oh yes – the result is: when I moved (single…no husband, no kids), I had to move 86 boxes of books….

  6. Diana,

    I just finished The Russian Concubine due to a review you had written. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it reminded me quite a bit of The Bronze Horseman triology by Paullina Simons. I also began the book on Henrietta Lacks and it’s absollutely fascinating! You will enjoy it.


  7. How the hell do your mind work?!?
    I can’t even read two books at the same time without getting things mixed up, and you’re writing the most complex book series in the universe while reading a gazillion books! And you made me feel very, very bad about all the time I have on my hands and what little I do with it.

  8. My husband/family thinks I’m bad about reading – I’m going to show this to them. I’m a frequent reader who usually has multiple books going at once (upstairs/downstairs/at work/in the car/etc). I’ve been trying to sneak exercise in the same way – not quite as accomplished at that yet…

  9. Diana,
    You rock, unquestionably, as always. :) However, I have to take issue with the phrase “small, digestible chunks” of reading in the bathroom. Eeeeew. :)

  10. Hey Diana,
    Wow, you just seem to use up every moment of your life in such a constructive way!! It’s amazing. I too, am an avid reader also, as is my hubby, which is SO cool, but am not quite able to multitask in such a way as you describe, anymore, sadly. Reading while cooking? How do do protect your books? Oh, yes, well if it is a Kindle, I guess that would be easier :) I cannot imagine my life without reading though!!

    A sad truth to some lives, like my brother in law’s, would be that he is dyslexic and he despises reading of any kind, therefore, he does not encourage his two boys to read either. How SAD for them all! I suppose I can see HIS reasons for not wanting to read so much, but to pass it to the children, yikes! I needle him all the time about it. Luckily their mother is a little more encouraging, but boys do like to emulate there fathers with their likes and dislikes.

    Anyways, you inspire me always with your incredible gift of always “Doing Stuff”. Do you ever just sit and do “Nothing” ?


  11. I feels good to know that I am not the only book reading/listening nut out there who does not watch TV! I usually go through at least 3, usually more books a month between audio in the car and reading during ‘spare’ time, though after reading your post I think I need to have book even more handy! My husband has also recently set me up with an ipod so I foresee several more books a month!

    One of my biggest pet peeves is people who waste ALL their free time in front of the TV, I will watch a movie every now and then but regular watching is such a waste of the precious little time I do have!

    Keep up the great work so I can have more to read:)

  12. Wow, that is all I can say. And also thank you. I feel inspired to read more, I really like the way you do things girl!

  13. Great blog post!
    I listen to audiobooks primarily; I used to be a voracious reader of actual text based literature but then the insatiable fibre lust struck so any down time is spent knitting or spinning (like a fiend)! But I use a book seat to still read actual books while knitting easy projects where I don’t need to watch the needles, and I also donthe books everywhere trick but somewhat less ‘everywhere’ than you (eg no kitchen but now I might take up that plan!).
    TV seems to get in the way of so much doesn’t it! People often see me knitting and say “oh, that’s so nice. I wish I had time to knit” and when queried what they did after work last night the answer is “watched tv”.

  14. I’m particularly glad that I don’t fall under the category of writers who can’t read while they are actively writing. That would leave me about… three weeks out of the year to read. My soul would shrivel into some ugly dessicated thing. So would my writing.

    I believe it could be true for others though. We’re all wired differently. As you say to those who only write in long chunks of time (which I prefer, but don’t require), more power to them.

  15. I belong to a book club and we just read “Half Broke Horses” and “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls. There were 8 of us at this particular gathering and for once we all read both of the books. We had quite the discussion with most of us mavellling at the resiliency of the human spirit. It was just amazing how 4 children took care of their alcoholic father and perpetually irresonsibible mother. Wow!

    Diana, I was wondering if you had read these books since much of the action takes place in Arizona.

    I love to read because I feel like it is direct communication from the author to me. There are no actors, directors, etc to help me get the message. It’s very personal in that it’s only the two of us.

    Anyway, I love your books and would like to thank you for many hours of entertainment!

    • Dear Carol–

      No, I haven’t read them yet, but have certainly heard good things about them, and will add them to my list–thanks!


  16. Having been asked the exact same question many times, I just loved your response for so many reasons. I have similar reading habits and get through about the same amount of books. I’ve been known to tell people that “I’ll read the back of the cereal packet at breakfast if there’s nothing else available.” I also read (and correct the spelling and grammar) in the pewsheet at church! :) Reading is my sanity, my escape – it’s not a matter of making the time. I do it because I need it! My daughters (aged 8 and 11) are the same. We each have library cards and max them out all the time (you can only get 20 books per card and we go twice a week)! I love your books and have read and re-read them countless times. I buy your books (rather than borrow them) because I will re-read them. They are classics.

  17. My family are active readers, I share books with my mother and grandmother. My husband and I encourage our 15 and 13 year old children to read as well. So much, that our home is overflowing (seems like) with books. I volunteer at the local school to help children with reading, and aside from the ones with learning difficulties, a lot of the kids who struggle with reading come from homes where reading isn’t important and one told me the only thing read in their home was the TV guide.
    I’ll read anything fiction, magazines, blog posts, whereas my husband hasn’t read fiction in nearly 20 years, yet he always is reading something. He is a Technical Writer and his office is overflowing with all sorts of ‘technical’ manuals.

  18. With all that multi-book juggling, why haven’t you switched to ebooks? I have at least 4 or 5 books in progress on my e-reader at any time, but usally settle on one to dig into for a push to the finish. It helps (or hurts, depending on perspective) that I have 3 hours of bus-bound commuting time. I, too, raced through “Dead Reckoning” and wish another Sookie bookie were ready. I have all of yours in my reader for a re-read at any tine, having read them all at least twice!

  19. Dianna-I too am a voracious ‘reader’ though because of my schedule and propensity to multi-task, I LISTEN to my books. When I sit down to ‘read’ I end up speed reading-a legacy of my Masters and National Boards I’m afraid. So the listening option really allows me to savor the words and intentions of the author. I recently listened to the HENRIETTA LACKS book and the EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES, in between some fiction for escape.

    I own all of your books both in hard cover and audio format and have read/listened to them several times. One of the wonderful benefits to having both is the ability to re-visit Jamie and Claire’s world through different senses-visual to imaginary and aural to concrete image.

    I look forward to the release of the next in the series…

    Loretta Remington

  20. Thanks for confirming that I am not the only person to read constantly and to have several books on the go at once. I was told it was crazy to read more than one book at a time, but I found it the only way to make a good book last more than a day or two particularly during the long nights of early menopause when i slept no more than 3 hours a fortnight (unfortunately not all at once). Thank God for the somewhat extreme length of your novels even though they are heavy bundles to hold up in bed – the sheer length of the stories last me a couple of days if I manage to pace myself. I love the way you write and reading your blogs it appears to not be much different from the way you live your life. As an Australian I could do with less of the American war stuff and more interpersonal relationship and day to day life. Please, please, please get the next installment out soon, I have been so concerned for wee Jem’s safety for far too long now hahaha.


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