Updated: Jul 26, 2020
I recently finished teaching a class which focused on two novels by Alain de Botton: On Love and The Course of Love.
I’ve read On Love a half-dozen times now. It’s a book I have recommended (to near-universal acclaim) to at least a dozen friends of different ages and social backgrounds and (even) nationalities. It is a book that continues to amaze me, even AFTER I’ve spent six weeks deconstructing it and discussing it.
And when The Course of Love was released, I knew that was a perfect time to look at a creative issue that often fascinates me: how does a writer’s work evolve with time and age and experience.
And there is no better way to study this issue than with these two books.
One reason I love teaching literature like this is that it allows me to justify an even deeper reading than I normally make for a book that makes giddy with artistic and creative delight. I can reason with myself, while there is an ever-growing shelf full of books I want to read and have not read yet, I have six students who are expecting me to offer them deeper insights, and I can therefore spend this extra time deep in the recesses of a book I’ve already read many times.
And this deep-dive attitude always pays off.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think I’m necessarily some sort of genius, just because I can see and explain and express some of the “tricks” or brilliant applications of creativity and craft that make a great book GREAT. I do realize, though, just how important doing this kind of study can be, not only to the writers or would-be writers in my classes, but for my own work.
Inevitably, when I study a great book like this, I walk away with several benefits for my own creative life:
It is nearly impossible for me to really deconstruct someone else’s creative work without coming away with an appreciation for how I can improve my own. Recently, I’ve been extremely conscious of the way good authors can compress and expand the “plot time” of their narrative, and this has helped me both refine my own writing, and find ways to help some of my writing clients.
When I really get into the nuts and bolts of a published, best-selling book, I am often reminded that there are legitimate differences between “publishable” and “unpublishable” literature. It can be easy to disregard the literary standards of editors and publishing houses in this age of instant self-publishing. But there is something to be said for rigorous editorial standards, and it is a mistake to think that in our “instant access age” where anything can be published that such access is always a positive thing. Self-publishing has many great benefits, but it is a mistake to believe that just because anything CAN be published that everything SHOULD be.
Finally, even though I am often overcome with at least one wave of the, “OMG, I’m not worthy, my writing sucks, I’ll never write anything like this,” reaction when I read and study high-quality work, I am, in the end, encouraged by great literature. It renews my own enthusiasm. This is especially true when I uncover a nugget or two that will help me make my own writing better.
Deep reading and study of great literature is a wonderful way to improve your own creative work. For me, leading a group discussion about great books is priceless.