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??”

Excerpts:
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.

Book: Book by Book

Title: Book by Book
Author: Michael Dirda
Genre: Non-Fiction
Length: 192 pgs

It’s not often that I pick up a book about books, unless it has to do with writing them. As I consider myself a moderately well-read person, and at the very least a professional when it comes to leisure reading in general, I have generally ignored the books telling you what sort of books you should read. Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life by Michael Dirda, on the outset, seems like that sort of book. The one saying “If you want to be considered ____ and ____, then you must read this book!”

Actually, no, I lied. That is simply my assumption about books like this. Dirda’s book, however, is insightful. It immediately caught my attention because of the typesetting on its binding, and the antique, simple style of the front cover. Marketing at its finest–I was obviously the demographic for this book. It starts out with a series of quotes that Dirda, a Pulitzer prize winner for criticism, collected in his personal journal. The chapters in this book cover everything from suggested books for a guest room library, to books you should read if you do indeed want to be considered well-read, to general thoughts on why we have become a nation of people who have one pigeon-hole for work, and one for leisure, when at one point, your work was your leisure. You were a milliner because you were good at it, and it was a challange to you. Same as metallurgy. Etc.

Excerpts:

Jean Cocteau – What others criticize you for, cultivate: It is you.

Michel Foucault – The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The fame is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end.

Isaiah Berlin – Decent respect for others and the toleration of dissent is better than pride and a sense of national mission; that liberty may be incompatible with, and better than, too much efficiency; that pluralism and untidiness are, to those who value freedom, better than the rigorous imposition of all embracing systems, no matter how rational and disinterested.

Dirda-isms . . .
pg 18 – Men and women who read and study and learn may go temporarily astray, but then can never be completely lost. Knowledge isn’t only its own reward; it gives us maps through the wilderness, instruments to guide our progress, and the confidence that no matter where we are we will always be, fundamentally, at home.

pg 136 – Most of the ancient Greek thinkers believed that one should aspire to a life of reason, and that ataraxia, a tranquil indifference to the world’s vicissitudes, was the state of mind most worth cultivating. And yet it’s hard not to wonder if untroubled serenity is really appropriate for human beings. Isn’t there a point when too much self-mastery leads to a drying up of the inner self and the springs of sympathy?
Dirda mourns the backseat reading has taken in recent years, and how, if your favorite book is something along the lines of…let’s say, a work by Albert Camus, Alexandre Dumas, or (shock!!) Jane Austen, you almost feel ashamed to admit as much to your not-as-literary friends simply because it isn’t on the best-seller list and therefore probably not something they would even know or care to know about.

If you love books, read this one. Dirda’s love shines through on the page, and by the end of the book, you not only feel like you’ve found a new friend, but you feel that you’re not alone in a visually-driven, technology-obsessed era.