Book: How to Read a Novel

Title: How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide
Author: John Sutherland
Genre: Non-fiction
Length: 272 pgs

Summary: This book does seem a little…odd, doesn’t it, by the title? A book on how to read a novel? Sutherland, a member of the Man Booker Committee (one of the most prestigious book contests a Brit can win), goes through the history of the novel, with chapters talking about how book covers are created, the importance of the copyright page, and how authors unconsciously “steal” ideas from good books that they have read. A thorough book, How to Read a Novel addresses the rising fear of readers everywhere: “There’s so much to read, but so little time to do it in! Whatever shall I do??”

pg 15 – In reading a good novel well we can discover something about ourselves–more specifically, how different we, as individuals, are from each of the other five-and-a-half billion individuals on the planet. A novel is, or can be, a sort of Rorschach Test–a reflection of us, in all our private complexities, in one of the better mirrors that contemporary life can hold up to us.

pg 35 – More significant is the fact that reading, done well, is, as I said in Chapter 2, an act of self-definition. Put another way, it is a solitary vice. One reads, as one dreams and defecates–alone. […] Our reading preferences are when carefully examined, as uniquely different, and as revealing, as our fingerprints.

pg 76 – The many adaptations of Pride and Prejudice have invariably tended to draw on the fashions of the Regency period: partly, perhaps, because the fashions are beautiful and pleasing to the contemporary eye; partly because the novel was published in 1813, the second year of the Regency. But the novel was actually set in the mid 1790s, when Britain was at war with Revolutionary France (hence all those soldiers–invasion was expected).

pg 91 – In many cases, the title does not make sense until you have read the novel. And even then you may not be 100 percent sure what the thing means. Which of the lovers, for instance, was ‘Pride’ and which was ‘Prejudice’? Personally I have never quite been able to make up my mind.

Why should you read this book?
Sutherland is obviously well-read, and any reader can discover this from his effortless allusions to well-known classics to today’s popular fiction, to books I’ve never heard of. (Thankfully, the latter is a small number.) His prose is easy to read despite it being full of asides to his audience. If you don’t know much about the publishing industry, this is a great introductory book, as Sutherland goes through the history of the novel, as well as take the novel apart, explaining every facet of the book you hold in your hands.

I will say, however, that about halfway through the book, I started to feel like Sutherland was just ranting about the deprecation of the situation, that people don’t spend enough time reading fiction and yet, there isn’t anything we can do about it, because there is no way anyone today can possibly read everything that is available. Which is part of his point. A moderately entertaining read, I feel like I wasn’t exactly the target audience, given that I knew a lot of what Sutherland said already, but hadn’t read it in such an entertaining, so characteristically cynical and British fashion.