Lately there have been quite a few books about the process of reading and writing. Certainly the addition of e-reading to formats has helped to develop this debate. How do we perceive the classics now? Why are books that are hard to read still on the curriculum? How can we read and improve our comprehension? Does e-reading change our understanding of what we read?
Sadly that last point isn’t tackled here, but it can only be a matter of time before someone writes a book on the subject of ‘Reading Like A Writer’. It’s a passionate argument for good construction and elegant prose, and breaks down a great many passages from novels to show us why clarity and simplicity are key weapons in a writer’s arsenal. As a tutorial in improving your reading it’s often insightful, and if I have a quibble it’s a personal one to do with the choice of authors, but that is in the gift of the aptly named Francine Prose, who writes from a fairly conservative American Academic perspective, but who transmits an immense enthusiasm and love of fine language. Recommended.
‘The Western Lit Survival Kit: How To Read The Classics Without Fear’ rates key works from history’s authors according to importance, accessibility and fun, but as she did with ‘How Not To Write A Novel’, Sandra Newman queers her pitch with too many jokes. Presumably this is aimed at students who equate canonical reading with being forced to wash floors, and Newman is trying to sugar the pill. I found her choice of inaccessible authors rather random, but I think once again this is more to do with the fact that US/ English literature is fundamentally different in terms of appreciation.
For example, while I enjoyed ‘The Great Gatsby’, I’m mystified by its exalted position. I’d rather have root canal work than read Gertrude Stein and regard Walt Whitman as the equal of William McGonagall, but I appreciate their importance across the Atlantic, just as Wordsworth, Kipling and Sterne are tough on Newman’s ear (and, it must be said, on many English ears too). But her breadth of reading is impressive and treading between the tish-boom punchlines there are some good points raised.
‘Thank You For Not Reading’ by Dubravka Ugresic is a refreshing critique of the whole book industry, from selling to buying, acquiring and reading; it’s a witty and razor-sharp series of essays about how we now see books (especially critical of the Oprah school of reading that has spread here) but it will soon need an update to include e-reading.
Weakest of all is ‘Agatha Christie’s Murder In The Making’ by John Curran, who has already published snippets from her 73 notebooks in excruciatingly boring detail. As Curran trudges on through the canon, determined to explain every last dotted ‘i’ and crossed ‘t’, he utterly fails to communicate the reasons why Christie has remained at the top of the tree for so long, labouring to understand where inspiration comes from, how or why it strikes. A sense of caprice or the joy of reading for the sake of it never touches his prosaic route-march through every single novel’s notes. The reader emerges with a head full of extraneous detail, like a trainspotter who fails to see the beauty of trains.