One of my elementary school teachers was an organized sort of person who not only liked to hang charts on her classroom walls, but also liked to lay down the facts straight off. On the first day of school it felt like we learned more about her than she learned about us. We learned her pet peeves, we learned her expectations, and we learned the meanings of distinct phrases she frequently uttered. “Heavens to Betsy” was one (an expression of mock despair or genuine surprise). “Crumbuttons” was another (the Catholic school version of “oh shit”). “Garbage in, garbage out” was a third.
We became used to hearing the phrases after a while, just as I became used to having to stare at the large red x’s that abutted my name on the behavior chart (often, my report card from that year tells me, for talking out of turn. Imagine that).
But up until now, I had always associated “garbage in, garbage out” with television. Perhaps the teacher explained it to that effect. Anyway, it meant that if you watched TV shows with excess violence or profanity, you ran a high risk of adopting similar behaviors yourself. It made sense.
All these years later, however, I’ve realized that the phrase goes further than that. Namely, in my case, when I read poorly written books, my writing takes a nose dive in quality as well. But when I read beautiful books–The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, recently–my writing becomes (forgive me) a little bit beautiful as well. I’ve always known that as a writer, books are a great influence. I sincerely doubt I’ve ever written anything that I hadn’t first picked up in one existing book or another.
This is still a dramatic realization, though! On one hand, if I read Woolf, Fitzgerald, Atwood, I may have a shot at standing in their ranks some day. On the other hand, I like to read the odd low-grade paperback. I like to revisit my childhood favorites, down to about RL5. I sometimes like to not think as I read, as horrific as that may sound to you. Am I doomed to forever waver between genius and foolishness, then? Shall I publish a Pulitzer one year, bonfire kindling the next? Or should I simply stop reading altogether, removing the good in order to avoid temptation to indulge in the bad?