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50 ...... Re ading A letter to Miss Angela Plomer, Brisbane, Australia: 18 August [? 1893] Vailima Dear Madam, There are to my knowledge no “ordinary rules”; there is certainly not one that I should be afraid to break. I can give you in one sentence all that is necessary. Read good authors with passionate attention; refrain altogether from reading bad ones. Believe me, Dear Madam, Yours truly Robert Louis Stevenson Miss Angela Plomer Brisbane P.S. Do not think of distinction, but find pleasure in your work from day to day.1 I would not blame Miss Plomer if she felt disappointed in this letter or if she thought Stevenson’s counsel a little terse. But his advice, at age forty-­ three, is consistent with his earliest efforts to be a writer when he was in his teens and early twenties. Writers rub off on one another. Read and study excellent models. Guard against shoddy writing habits that can unconsciously creep into your work. A significant part of any writer’s career is reading other writers, and it’s doubtful anyone can “refrain altogether” from reading bad authors. We have to read an author before it can be determined if he is bad or good—and Stevenson read his share of bad ones. At the age of thirty-­ seven, he claimed that he had read thousands of novels, some of 51 ...... them atrociously bad. In an interview with an Auckland reporter , he advised aspiring authors not to get mired in the work of their contemporaries except for amusement. If an author confines himself to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he “will get the finest course of literature there is.” He also recommended reading aloud. “Too many of us read by the eye, but the man who means to write, must, whether he articulates or not, read everything by the ear.” And he thought there were two benefits to reading Latin. First it helps the writer “arrive at the value of words,” and second, Latin “is capable of suggesting such extraordinary and enchanting effects, that it gives a man spur and wings to his fancy.”2 After a while the question becomes not which books to avoid and which to read, but which to reread. RLS had his canon: Dumas, Meredith, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Bunyan , Scott, Hazlitt. The sedulous ape held fast to the belief that rereading and copying good writers was how to get at the marrow of their style and, perhaps equally important, how to earn a clear comprehension of their moral vision. “I never feel that I know a writer till I have tried to imitate him,” he wrote to George Saintsbury.3 A writer has to handle the tools of the trade until they feel serviceable in his own hands. Reading widely is a form of preparation, a rehearsal—like practicing the hard parts before performing the concerto, knowing the steps before getting up to dance. “Before he can tell what cadences he truly prefers, the student should have tried all that are possible; before he can choose and preserve a fitting key of words, he should long have practised the literary scales; and it is only after years of such gymnastic that he can sit down at last, legions of words swarming to his call, dozens of turns of phrase simultaneously bidding for his choice, and he himself knowing what he wants to do and (within the narrow limit of a man’s ability) able to do it.”4 It takes a long time to learn how to write because reading takes a long time, and for Stevenson 52 ...... no one writes well who has not also read much. The most important word in that passage is years. ...... In a chapter from Random Memories called “Rosa Quo Locorum” (from Horace: “the late rose fades”), Stevenson remembered when he first knew he was a reader. “I was sent into the village on an errand; and, taking a book of fairy tales, went down alone through a fir-­ wood, reading as I walked. How often since then has it befallen me to be happy even so; but that was the first time: the shock of that pleasure I have never since forgot, and if my mind serves me to the last, I never shall; for it was then I knew I loved reading .”5 Stevenson was a different reader at different times of his life. The “shock of pleasure” he experienced as a boy developed into an addiction when he...


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