Mendelson, Edward. The Things That Matter. New York: Pantheon, 2006.
Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Sutherland, John. How to Read a Novel. New York: St. Martin's, 2006.
I'VE SPENT A LOT OF TIME IN AIR-ports lately—Minneapolis/St. Paul, O'Hare, BWI, JFK—and the one thing they all have in common, besides long security lines full of people unable to understand that liquid soap is, in fact, liquid and that everyone must remove their shoes before passing through the metal detector, is reading. Bookstores and newsstands supply endless copies of bestsellers, magazines, and newspapers, and practically everyone without a cell phone glued to his ear or a laptop balanced on her knees has their noses buried in some kind of printed material.
This shouldn't seem remarkable, considering the ubiquity of Barnes and Noble and Borders, but as the National Endowment for the Arts reported several years ago, only 56.6% of American adults read books and less than half of the total adult population reads literature (Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. Washington: NBA, 2004), so even though my fellow travelers' tastes leaned towards James Patterson and Nora Roberts, I couldn't help feeling buoyed by the intensity with which they devoured their books of choice. Still, a trip to any chain bookstore, and many independent ones as well, shows the publishing world's response to the NEA's findings: the amount of space devoted to "literary" works is eroding faster than the California coastline.
This trend is evident in print media itself, as newspapers like the Dallas Morning News have cut the pages devoted to books in recent months and even The New York Times Book Review has leaned toward covering short-shelf-life current events books. All may not be lost for the reader of literary fiction, however, based on the release of three new books—John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel, Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, and Edward Mendelson's The Things That Matter. These books, all from major publishing houses, present compelling arguments for reading literary novels and examples of how to read them. At the very least, these books show that reading won't go down without a fight.
WHEN I WORKED IN A BOOK-store a few years ago, the question I heard most often, after, "Do you carry The Da Vinci Code?" was "How do you know what to read?" This from teens looking to augment their school-assigned booklists, professionals on their lunch breaks from the surrounding office buildings, and people serving jury duty at the nearby courthouse, all overwhelmed by aisles and aisles of options when they only wanted something to help them survive the tedium of a week in court or the rush-hour bus ride home. While talking with these people, I attempted to tease out their interests, offered suggestions, and, more often than not, left them just as confused as they'd been in the first place. If only I'd had John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel at my disposal. Sutherland has quite a pedigree—Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, columnist for The Guardian, committee chairman for the 2005 Man Booker Prize—and his book benefits from these experiences. He is comfortable with a range of references and authors, everyone from Tolstoy and Thackeray to Nick Hornby and Helen Fielding, yet he eschews literary criticism in favor of a more practical, and personal, approach to reading.
The book's subtitle, "A User's Guide," says it all, though it might be more apt if called "A Buyer's Guide" or "I'm in a Bookstore, Now What?," because Sutherland's work is designed to help readers perform literary triage in the face of the thousands of titles available in any bookstore. As he writes, "[t]he modern reader is like an explorer cutting his way through the jungle with a machete—slashing a path to that single volume which is, just now, wanted" (7). The problem with finding that "single volume" is that more than ten thousand new novels are published each year (12), and as a result the average reader is forced to allow bookstores and publishing companies to do the selecting in the form of advertisements, blurbs, and discounts and sales promotions, not to mention movie tie-ins and the gold standard, the Oprah Book Club seal.
Sutherland jumps into the fray, offering himself as a guide through this foreign terrain. After a few introductory chapters, including the wonderfully concise "Fiction—A Four-Minute History," he takes the reader step-by-step through the process, starting with "Titles" and following all the way through "Epigraphs, forwards and afterwards," before addressing a number of other issues, like hard- versus paperback, book reviews, and the effect of prizes and awards on sales. He does everything but select the book for you, though his ten page bibliography isn't a bad place to start. And while each chapter has its own structure, Sutherland is careful to place the topic in historical perspective, as in "Titles," where he discusses the relatively late emergence of titles, the use of synoptic summaries in Richardson's Clarissa, and chapter titles, not to mention misleading and enigmatic titles. He even finds space for a quiz on the references imbedded in five Aldous Huxley titles. His knack for approaching seemingly-mundane topics from fresh and witty perspectives ensures that seasoned readers will enjoy the book as much as the novices he purports to address.
Sutherland's learnedness comes in handy most in the chapter "Read One, You've Read Them All: Intertextuality." After a brief explanation of the term intertextuality and its origin in Julia Kristeva's scholarship, he focuses on four novels short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2005-Zadie Smith's On Beauty, John Banville's The Sea, Ali Smith's The Accidental, and Julian Barnes's Arthur and George—explaining what they owe to their forbears, including E. M. Forster, Iris Murdoch and James Joyce, the filmmaker Pasolini, and Emile Zola. This discussion points to one of reading's greatest joys: the discovery of connections between authors and works. Sutherland doesn't follow this line as far as he could, mainly because he intends the chapter as an introduction, but as he concludes, "for the 'user' the message is simple. The more fiction you read, and the more intelligently you do so, the richer your experience will be. Those readers who read most get most out of it" (130).
Ultimately, Sutherland moves beyond the simple joys of reading for its own sake to address the question that looms over most supposedly non-essential pursuits in our hectic existence: Why bother? As always, he takes the broadest possible view. He begins tongue-in-cheek, with a British poisoner inspired by Agatha Christie and with Timothy McVeigh, who learned about explosives from The Turner Diaries, and then moves on to the nineteenth-century notion of novels as "middle-class manual[s] of conduct," as evidenced in the work of Jane Austen (239). He asserts that novels still "have a socio-educational value" and that "[i]n a technological age, for example, it is important that the population should know something about how the machinery that makes modern life possible works" (240). Michael Crichton's success, for example, can be attributed in part to this idea—The Andromeda Strain, published in 1969, benefited from the real-life events of the space program, and Jurassic Park helped, common readers understand the complexities of Watson and Crick's work with DNA. Sutherland mentions a number of recent offerings as well, novels related to Chernobyl and nuclear-generated fuel and the US court system's treatment of death row inmates, in an attempt to refute the notion that books are written in artistic bubbles, free from the concerns of every day life.
Referencing D. H. Lawrence, Sutherland concludes, "at their highest pitch of achievement, novels can indeed be the one bright book of life. The trick is finding which, among the millions now accessible, fits that bill" (243). While he sets out to guide readers through the book-selection process, helping them become better informed about all aspects of publishing, he also defends the notion that it is all right to mix the "high" and "low," the Lawrences and the Crichtons. Sutherland wants readers to select the right book for them, specifically, not what the bestseller lists or book clubs or prize committees think we should be reading.
Where sutherland wants to assist the average reader in making her selection, Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, focuses on a particular subset: creative writing, which she has taught for more than twenty years. The proliferation of programs, colonies, and conferences for writers helps explain not only the impetus for her book but also its place of honor among the New Releases display at my nearby chain bookstore (an expensive position, marketing-wise, as Sutherland points out). Prose offers a lesson in close reading, an essential tool for young writers, though one that often manifests itself only in identifying flaws in student work, not in studying enduring works from the past. She argues that "a close-reading course should be at least a companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop.... reading a masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly" (11). Prose provides such elucidation in chapters that focus on words, sentences, and paragraphs, as well as broader concepts like narration, character, and gesture, all the while demonstrating the refined eye that is an essential tool for writers.
Prose is at her best when she is most specific and methodical, as in the chapter on words, where she spends almost three pages analyzing the opening paragraph of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." As she states, "[o]ne way to compel yourself to slow down and stop at every word is to ask yourself what sort of information each word—each word choice—is conveying" (16). So we learn the significance of character names, the "psychic distance" achieved by leaving the grandmother unnamed, and the importance of a strong verb like "seizing," as opposed to the pedestrian "taking," not to mention how the choice of "aloose" "conveys the rhythm and flavor of a local dialect without subjecting us to the annoying apostrophes, dropped g's, the shootin' and talkin' and cussin', and the bad grammar with which other authors attempt to transcribe regional speech" (18). Prose shows us how important each word is to the whole and how the choices O'Connor makes in the opening paragraph echo and foreshadow the story's ending.
Once she has covered the essentials, Prose turns to reading Chekhov as a case-study in putting everything together. Her description of the pleasure she found in reading his stories during two-and-a-half-hour bus rides to the school where she taught provides the perfect support for Sutherland's emphasis on finding the right book at the right time: "[r]eading Chekhov, I felt not happy, exactly, but as close to happiness as I knew I was likely to come. And it occurred to me that this was the pleasure and mystery of reading, as well as the answer to those who say that books will disappear. For now, books are still the best way of taking great art and its consolations along with us on a bus" (235). Almost without fail, Chekhov's stories contradicted the advice she gave her students, everything from avoiding similar-sounding names to sticking with one point-of-view to not killing off the main character at the end of the story. Thinking about these contradictions made her re-evaluate her methods, leading her to realize that "Chekhov was teaching me how to teach" (241). His stories contain just as many contradictions themselves, which is why, Prose argues, "Chekhov's stories should not be read singly but as separate parts of a whole. For like life, they present contradictory views, opposing visions. Reading them, we think: How broad life is! How many ways there are to live!" (247).
Prose is correct, though a second conclusion, one similar to Sutherland's writing about intertextuality, can be reached by this experience: the reason writers, especially young writers, need to read carefully, to Read Like a Writer, is to identify why Chekhov's deviations from "the rules" work. The more we read, and the more carefully we do it, the more we appreciate what it means to write well. There may be no better guide in this endeavor than Francine Prose.
Edward mendelson's the Things That Matter is the most challenging of the three works and the most carefully focused, but it also offers the strongest defense for reading: novelists, great ones at least, can teach us about ourselves and offer a lens through which we can view our experiences. The book's subtitle, "What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say about the Stages of Life," explains Mendelson's overarching structure, though to his credit he does not limit his discussions of the books—Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts—to the particular stages. He also offers connections among the seven, relevant biographical information, and acute close readings that will make the reader want to return to each, no matter how many times one has read them. Mendelson's structure is doubly chronological, the chapters progress from birth to death and from earliest work, Frankenstein, to most recent, Between the Acts, and he explains his design as "a brief (extremely brief) history of the emotional and moral life of the past two centuries, an inner biography of the world of thought and feeling that came into being in the romantic era of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries" (xi-xii). He sets a daunting task, for both himself and the seven novels, when he asserts that "[t]his book is written for all readers, of any age, who are still deciding how to live their lives" (xii-xiii).
In discussing childhood and Wuthering Heights, for instance, Mendelson shows how Emily Bronte overturned traditional notions of childhood and adulthood: "[c]hildhood, in this novel, is a state of titanic intensity, adulthood a state of trivial weakness" (47). This is why Catherine and Heathcliff cannot recapture their childhood connection in adulthood. For adults, the strongest bond between two people is found in marriage, and therefore sex, but Catherine and Heathcliff's relationship has nothing to do with these things, and the introduction of such concerns forces them farther apart, as "[t]hey are divided both by their separation into man and woman and by the social distinctions that bar the questionable upstart Heathcliff from Catherine the landed body" (48).
To demonstrate Bronte's concern with childhood, Mendelson relies on biography, textual analysis of Catherine and Heathcliff's story, and a brief history of ideas about childhood and nature. This multi-faceted approach is representative of every chapter. To show how misguided Casaubon's enterprise is in Middlemarch, for example, Mendelson uses George Eliot's translation of David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, and he points to Jung, Yeats, and T. S. Eliot as influences on Virginia Woolf's use of archetype in Mrs. Dalloway. Ultimately, however, Mendelson allows the authors' words to speak for themselves. He quotes liberally and applies the kind of close reading Francine Prose taught. He eschews literary theory and its attendant terminology in favor of practical criticism that requires only the reader's careful attention to these seven books, and his discussion of each makes it clear that these novels have endured not only for artistic reasons but also because they offer "models or examples of the kinds of life that a reader might or might not choose to live" (xii). Even though Catherine and Heathcliff's need to regain their lost connection leads to their deaths, Mendelson shows readers that "the power of Wuthering Heights derives from [Bronte's] understanding of the impulse, more or less hidden in everyone, to find a refuge against time and change, and her understanding of the price you pay for having that impulse even if you never yield to it" (78).
In his introduction, Mendelson argues that "behind the scenes, unheard by the characters, the author's inner voices are also arguing with each other over which story to tell and how to tell it... The authors refuse to be satisfied by simple or straightforward explanations of complex things, and they repeatedly correct the flaws of one explanation by exploring a different one" (xiv). This creates a dialogue between the works that serves as an elaborate form of intertextuality—the more we read these authors, the better we understand their complexities and the clearer the richness and variety of their ideas becomes. In this light, Woolf's view of nature as "prime and archaic impulses" (238) in Between the Acts can be seen both within its specific context (her final work, completed shortly before her suicide and the start of World War II) and within its place opposite Mary Shelley's and Emily Bronte's more hopeful, Romantic conceptions of nature. Mendelson points out that Woolf even argues with her earlier self, critiquing the "virtuosity and depth of her verbal artistry" (236). Mendelson presents these contradictory ideas, within each writer's work and from writer-to-writer, without keeping score or arguing for one interpretation over another. Instead, he revels with a contagious passion in the variety of ideas and experiences these books contain. Like all great books, these seven novels truly do contain The Things That Matter. What better defense of reading could there be?