Don’t just sit there! Read something.

February 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

I have issues with books. I salivate and drool and buy WAY beyond my budget, and often beyond my capacity to read. It’s this massive need to consume every damn thing that was ever written (well,maybe not every damn thing) and to keep them close to me. Hence, row upon row of books, lovely books,unread books. I look at them and feel a sense of great wellbeing and joy.

I know there are other freaks like me out there. I know you, and I see you. You are safe here.

Anyhow, the other day I decided to finally read my copy of Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, given to me by an ex-boss, strangely enough. Despite his rather obvious personality setbacks, this boss knew how to pick books for people. It’s a gift, really, to know how to gift givingly. I really, really wanted the Prose book when it came out. I was utterly chuffed when I got it. But as is the case with me, I loved it by staring at it through the glass windows of my bookshelf every so often. I had other books to read, you see.

Finally, though, I crack it open. And… well. The general conclusion is that I read the beginning bit with enthusiasm, kind of lost interest somewhere in the middle, and then read the final bits again with some interest. Prose obviously loves books, and she writes from the viewpoint of someone who thinks that not only is literature necessary, it’s a saving grace. There were moments when I recognised her as a kindred spirit – a fellow obsessive reader and lover of words – and I wanted to reach through the pages and give her a hug.

Yet somehow, something seemed lacking. It’s quite possibly due to the many examples she cited. Prose never gushes or exclaims about the stuff she loves. She liberally and quietly cites examples from a variety of books, and more often than not allows those examples to speak for itself. The problem is: some of these examples of great literature are a great big snore.

Prose unabashedly adores much of what constitutes the canon of Western Literature, and that’s fine. But I can’t share her enthusiasm for some of the usual suspects like Hemingway, Carver, and Hemingway. And did I mention Hemingway? Also, some snore-worthy passages from John Cheever, Henry Green, and Scott Spencer. To be fair, I’ve not read any novels from these particular three writers. I’ve never been compelled to, and Prose’s close reading and explication of certain passages from their work did not make me change my mind.

One of the highlights was the passages she cited from Heinrich Von Kleist, whom I had previously only heard about in vague terms. Prose cites some examples from his stories, like ‘The Marquise of O – ‘ that I found riveting and full of life. As opposed to some of the tepid offerings we had from such masters of fiction like Hemingway. Blah. She draws on this Von Kleist story liberally for the chapter on ‘Character.’ Prose writes that Von Kleist creates his characters so deftly that readers are “constantly being challenged to weigh the evidence and consider what is likely, probably, and impossible.”

Much of this book is an homage to the literature Prose finds worthy of emulation – or rather, not direct emulation, as such, but worthy of study and deeper analysis by anyone who calls him or herself a writer.

Her chapter on Chekhov is incisive and particularly moving:

“Reading 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.”

I guess now we need to qualify that statement with – “regardless of whether that book comes in the form of bound paper, or a Kindle or an iPad.”

Prose’s book is not a how-to for writers, but it is a book-length elaboration on the single most important thing writers need to do: read widely, and voraciously. I would have enjoyed it more had she turned to books and writers that I found more exciting, but taste is subjective. Ultimately, Prose teaches you how to extract the best possible literary nutrients from the books that you love best, by learning to read closely. You can do that by mining literary gold from the novels of Austen, Hemingway, or Tove Jannson, Scarlett Thomas, or Chinua Achebe. Anyone, really. You don’t have to stick to Prose’s reading list, but it does help to consider her plea to read widely, AND to consider dipping into the Canon. Her argument is that those works have stood the test of time because they’re clearly very good. I find that doubtful, because cultural, historical, and socio-political factors can help works of literature stay in circulation for reasons other than its pleasing aesthetic qualities. Despite that, I think it helps to read what you’re denouncing before you denounce it.

Most of all, Prose exhorts us (and writers, in particular) to read for courage. The world is crap enough as it is. It’s not going to give you a standing ovation for writing a pitch-perfect short story that blends Gothic elements with magical realism with a dash of Renaissance drama. However, people continue to write, create, and produce art because they must, and people will continue to savour art because they must.

Do as Prose says, then: “If we want to write, it makes sense to read – and to read like a writer.”

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