The giants of English literature--Ulysses, The Sound and The Fury, Great Expectations, The Waves, all take words and torture them, stretch them, use them in new ways, expanding their possibilities to produce new meaning, greater understanding, deeper feeling, epiphany. They turn the cliché on its head, put paid to the caricatures of life we see on television, force their reader to reflect, think, grow, and live differently. Without these books, great modern works like History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, Oscar and Lucinda, The Moor's Last Sigh or Captain Corelli's Mandolin could not have been written. Each writer owes his craft to those who preceded them and changes the world for their readers and those writers who follow them. So reading well is part of the ongoing and permanent apprenticeship for those who wish to write in a way which is more than simply craft.
Writing which makes people cry, think, desire, anger, laugh and carry your characters around with them as part of their permanent memory bank; writing which is Art. If you are a Dr. Frankenstein, wanting to bring your characters and meaning to life, to join the really big authors in making meaning, then you simply have to read. It might be a long apprenticeship. Good books are not always easy. Nor do they generally give you that feeling that 'you can do this' which poor books might, in fact you might end up feeling a little awed.
However, the short term pain is more than offset by the deep pleasure of transportation into an original world, by the long term gains of vocabulary expansion, greater clarity of vision, and a heightened sense of what is possible with words.
So how do you find out about really good books? How do you choose wisely so that your investment of time is worthwhile? After all if you are reading, writing, doing something else to bring in money - since writing well is often not lucrative in the first instance unless you are very lucky - and possibly raising a family and dealing with the daily imperatives of keeping body fed and home clean, juggling time is always an issue. Well, I'm a compulsive. I read anything and everything from cereal boxes to historical tomes, but I also try to discriminate based on the genre I'm reading. If it is going to be a serious read, I'll pick writers who I know are good, based either on recommendations of like-minded readers or past experience, although some of my best finds have been serendipitous so I have to admit that I have on occasion judged a book by the blurb on its cover. I'm lucky though in that I've been reading so long that it is as natural to me as breathing (nearly) and I can start and stop and read in the most extenuating circumstances (in fact reading helps me deal with extenuating circumstances better). If this isn't the case for you, perhaps you need a guide.
Find a good reviewer whose work you trust and let them guide you. There are plenty to choose from on the internet and in print. Some of the more well known review sites are:
To name just a few. And of course there's my own site: www.compulsivereader.com.
You could also go by the prize winners, for example The Booker Prize (including the nominees) is almost always a good guide to great fiction, although you would, of course, miss out on all the non-prize winning books that way. Of course there is always bookshop recommendations, from Amazon to the little guy with the great personalized service down the road who probably knows your reading tastes if you visit often enough. However you find great books, enjoy your apprenticeship.
If you love reading enough to do it under any circumstances, in whatever snatches of time you can afford, and write when you aren't reading, you are going to eventually produce something wonderful. A shining gem which will change your readers' perception of the world.
About the author: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry books Repulsion Thrust, and Quark Soup, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse , She Wore Emerald Then, Imagining the Future, and Deeper Into the Pond. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more at http://www.magdalenaball.com