Reading Like a Writer
I don’t know whether it’s the arrival of cool fall-like back-to-school weather or the arrival in the mail yesterday of Francine Prose’s new book, but I am disposed this morning to prioritize my reading (again) and get some of the clutter off my reading list.
The book, which was a surprise because it isn't scheduled for publication until November, is Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Like Them. Publishers Weekly gives it a starred review and suggests it should be on the shelf next to E M Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. I agree.
To read like a writer, Prose tells us, is to slow down and pay attention; to look carefully at paragraphs, sentences, and words; to detect the author's meaning from the carefully chosen elements of his writing. This is, of course, what those of us lucky enough to escape from the English Department before the advent of the “isms” learned to call “close reading.” Instead of being taught to criticize the author first and read him later, we spent class time prying out the details of a work – details that tell us a good deal more than does squinting through a narrow window called “feminism” or “deconstructionism.”
Prose tells of a high school assignment to circle every word relating to eyes, light, darkness, and vision in Oedipus and Lear and to write an essay about what she concluded. She found hundreds of references to sight and blindness, knowledge and ignorance, truth and lies, making the blinding of the characters at the climax more powerful and compelling.
Reading Like a Writer makes me want to read that way again, but applying the technique to chick lit and undistinguished murder mysteries is not gratifying. I need to get back to belles-lettres, to books with literary merit, to the canon.
Prose appends a list of “Books to Be Read Immediately,” which includes Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep as well as the more predictable Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice. Also on her list is Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, a Man Booker longlist title.
Reading Like a Writer is available from Barnes & Noble.