|The look of Love|
The idea is easy enough to rebuff, but there's some truth there. You won't aim to write like Milton unless you've read Milton. His themes, turns of phrase and whatnot, simply won't be accessible to you. You will lack the inspiration of Milton and the aspiration to be Milton (or better). As you can probably tell: I've never read Milton - and so my use of language is not touched by his apparent genius.
In someways the rule is incomplete. In a great article on Visual Vocabulary, Aaron Diaz explored the notion that you must push yourself to draw new shapes and forms, so that when brainstorming new ideas they'll be accessible to your imagination.
Perhaps the rule should be: "If you want to write better books, read better books, and then become proficient with their style". This isn't a call for creatives to become shadows of the greats, but a notion that by experiencing and regurgetating someone else's work to a reasonable standard, you absorb some of their tools and ideas to use for your own alien purposes.
To stand on the shoulders of giants, you must first eat their flesh! In fact there was a fascinating article on game design which inspired this post: Against Dilettantism by Jack Monahan. The section that interests me most is the story of Richard Garriott:
Like virtually everyone operating in some aspect of the fantasy realm, he was enamored of J.R.R. Tolkien.
The difference between Garriott and most other authors or designers in love with the Lord of the Rings is that Garriott didn't just read Tolkien in order to understand what Tolkien did, Garriott researched all the things that Tolkien researched.
This dodges that fatal generation loss that comes from making your own copy of a good thing--which is that it is worse for being an imperfect copy, a copy of a copy ... Garriott followed his idol correctly. If you want to be like Tolkien, immerse yourself in the primary sources he used to create his definitive fantasy world and synthesize your own influences as well; simply reading Tolkien and changes place names or plot points won't cut it.
In order to create the ultimate Tolkienesque experience, Garriott ensured that he stood on the same shoulders as Tolkien.
Now Garriott, it seems, aimed to be like Tolkien, but imagine if he wanted to be Tolkien plus Mark Twain? By consuming both one can aspire to be that sum of the products.
I wish more people were like Garriott, if you're going to copy, copy well. Put your back into it! However do more than that! Don't just read cheap Sci-Fi, don't just draw fantasy, don't just copy Call of Duty!
If you want to make better games, read better books, draw better pictures, play Love not war!