When I was a kid, I read voraciously and continuously. As I mentioned in an earlier post, our hometown library was a favorite haunt of mine throughout my growing-up years. We had a lot of books in the house, too, from The Jungle Book to Black Beauty to The Book of Knowledge. Yeah, I read the encyclopedia! I also loved coming into my elementary school classroom to see the stacks of paperbacks on the teacher's desk with the little order slips dangling from them, because it meant that the Scholastic book order had arrived!
As I got older, I progressed from animal stories to science fiction. I think I read The Hobbit for the first time in junior high, and I slogged through Dune early in my high school years. In fact, our common taste in books was one of the things that attracted me to Patient Husband when we were in college. I also made a point of reading books from the canon as it was perceived at the time. It became my habit to read for a bit before going to sleep at night. I have no idea how many times my parents came in to take off my glasses and turn off the light because I had fallen asleep over my current read, but Mom says it happened a lot.
When I started college I continued to read some science fiction and fantasy as well as more classic works required for my classes. I had a great class in "The Continental Novel" that introduced me to Knut Hamsun, Emile Zola, Thomas Mann and Dostoevsky, among others. I finally read a lot of Shakespeare, and I began reading French literature. One outcome of my studies was I became a lot pickier about what I read for fun. After having read Camus, Sartre, Proust, Duras, Colette, Hugo and poets from Francois Villon on, I had a lot less patience for dreck. These days I read very little fiction. I'll stop reading a book that doesn't hold my attention rather than read it through to the end. I much prefer reading memoirs, nonfiction, and biographies, although I often re-read novels I've read and loved in years past. I've read Sho-gun at least three or four times, and I've read James Herriot's books enough that I have whole passages memorized. If I had to pick an author that has influenced me more than any other, I'd have to say it's Mr. Herriot, with James Clavell and perhaps James Michener bringing up the rear. Herriot's style, pacing, and characterization feel very natural to me, so although my first novel takes place in the 14th century I have to acknowledge my debt to the Yorkshire vet.
I try to read books that will benefit my writing, on the "garbage in--garbage out" principle. When I was writing Isabelle's Confession I often began by reading a few classic poems from a little pasteboard book that my grandmother had received as a Christmas gift from her sister in 1931. I found that it got me in the right frame of mind to compose the kind of fiction I wanted. I haven't had to do that with my current project, although I may try it if I get stuck.