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Richard Nordquist

Reading to Write: Old Essays for the New Year

By December 24, 2012

Follow me on:

Trust me on this one: all good writers started out as good readers.

  • "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading in order to write," Samuel Johnson said. "A man will turn over half a library to make a book."

  • "The real importance of reading," says Stephen King in his memoir On Writing, "is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one's papers and identification pretty much in order."

  • "Read, read, read--and then read some more," is W.P. Kinsella's straightforward advice. "When you find something that thrills you, take it apart paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word, to see what made it so wonderful. Then use those tricks the next time you write."

The one suggestion I might add is to read the old as well as the new. Old writers (yes, even dead writers) can teach us some new tricks.

With this thought in mind, we've collected nearly 300 classic British and American essays composed over the past four centuries. Each is a "classic" in the sense that the writer's words live on--both for what's said and for the way it's said.

From that collection we offer these three meditations on the turning of the year.

  • "New Year's Eve" by Charles Lamb
    "Of all sounds of all bells--(bells, the music nighest bordering upon heaven)--most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the Old Year. I never hear it without a gathering-up of my mind to a concentration of all the images that have been diffused over the past twelvemonth; all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected--in that regretted time. I begin to know its worth, as when a person dies. . . ."

  • "The New Year" by George William Curtis
    "That is our day of remembrance, our feast of hope, the first page of our fresh calendar of good resolutions, the day of underscoring and emphasis of the swift lapse of life. 'A few more of them, and then--' whispers the mentor, who is not deceived by the jolly compliments of the season, and the sober significance of the whisper is plain enough. . . ."

  • "At the Turn of the Year" by Fiona Macleod (William Sharp)
    "The breeding-change that may be seen even before Christmas, the January stir that becomes so obvious a week or so, or any day, after the New Year is come, here and now we are at the turn of the year. . . . It is this unchanging 'any day' element that redeems even the longest and dreariest midwinter; the sense of the ever-moving ichor in the eternal veins; the inward exultation at the ever-quickening and ever-slowing, but never-ceasing fans of life and death. . . ."

Consider making a new year's resolution to explore our rich collection of Classic British and American Essays and Speeches.

But for now we join with Charles Lamb in saying, "Another cup of the generous! and a merry New Year, and many of them, to you all, my masters!"

Image: Charles Lamb (1775-1834)

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