Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Books About Books

This fulfills another category in the my Year of Mini Challenges for the nonfiction category. I had planned to read Three Cups of Tea since it was already a book club book for me, but I just couldn't finish it. It's a great story of what one person can do to make a big change, but I've heard so much about it, I felt like I already knew the story. The writing is not great, and I've too many other books waiting to be read. So I gave up after about 100 pages. Now, on to the books I did read. They are both books about books and how and why we read them, as well as how writers can learn how to write better by reading great books. The first book is How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom, and the other book is Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose. I know that not one person that bothers to read this blog will find it at all weird that I have read and enjoyed these books. However, that's not been the case with the people I run into during my day to day life. In fact, I found myself more than once hiding the cover of the books when reading in public. I didn't want to have to explain AGAIN why a 41 year old librarian would want or need to read a book about how and why to read a book. It just doesn't make sense to those outside the book lover's realm, which sadly describes most of the people I encounter daily. Don't get me wrong, I am not surrounded by a bunch of illiterate people. On the contrary, many of them read and would say that they enjoy reading. However, none of them feel about books the way that I do or the way that many of you do.

My initial impetus for picking these books up in the first place was to learn to read more closely in order to wring everything possible out of the books that I read. Often when I read reviews of books that I've read or participate in book group discussions, I always find something that I missed or see something about the book in a new light. I think we've all experienced this. In fact, that's one of the reasons I love reading your blogs and participating in group discussions in the first place. I get more out of my reading when I do.

Well, you may ask -- did I learn anything from either of these books that will help me be a more attentive reader and get more out of my reading? The answer would be a resounding, yes. Though, I liked both books, I learned much more from Francine Prose's book, which was also written in a style that I much prefer over the Bloom book. Always a good indication for me of how much I like a book or how much I want to be able to recall is the number of book darts I use. Let's just say that I wouldn't be able to take the Prose book through a metal detector as it is now. I think I used almost an entire container of book darts in this book.

For the most part, I'm a fiction reader. I don't read a whole lot of nonfiction unless it's about books and reading or some related topic. There are a few exceptions occasionally but not very often. The reason for this is the language. I often find nonfiction written in a straightforward way in which language is used only to convey meaning. In other words, for me at least, the language isn't beautiful; it doesn't paint a picture for me; it doesn't transport me to another place or time. It simply relays information. That being said; however, I've learned that this certainly isn't the case for Francine Prose. I fell in love with this book and her writing style while reading the first few pages of the first chapter. I used 10 book darts in the first 12 pages. The first chapter is entitled "Close Reading." Prose begins with the question of whether creative writing can actually be taught. She doesn't really try to answer this question fully, but rather she looks at how she learned to write and how many other writers learned to write, as well and uses this as an example. She says on page 2,
"Like most -- maybe all -- writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books. Long before the idea of a writer's conference was a glimmer in anyone's eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?"

She continues on page 3 to describe what she means by close reading,
"I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made. And though it's impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction."

According to Prose, which makes perfect sense to me now that I think about it, we all began to read this way. As we gained more aptitude, we were able to read chunks of text at a time instead of decoding each word separately. This of course is necessary to be able to read anything of any length. However, it also makes it possible to miss subtle nuances that the author embeds in her book. Of course, it depends on what you're reading and why you're reading it as to how closely you want to read. A technical manual on how to put something together or make something work only needs to be read closely enough to pick out the crucial bits. However, a literary novel by an erudite author may require a closer reading in order to catch all the allusions, to understand all the symbolism, etc. That's basically what this book is about. In each chapter, starting with the smallest component of a novel -- the word -- and going on to the sentence in chapter 3, followed by paragraphs, narration, characters, dialogue, details, and gesture, Prose breaks down how to be a close reader. On the final page of chapter one, she describes a scenario in which close reading helped her in her own writing. She was writing a story and having a hard time figuring out how to make a violent ending seem natural and not forced. During this time, she was also teaching the works of Isaac Babel in one of her classes. As usual, they were reading his works one word at a time and breaking the story down in order to understand his choices and what each word signified for the story as a whole. In doing so, she realized that Babel often used "intense lyricism" directly before a scene of intense violence. "It's characteristic of Babel to offer the reader a lovely glimpse of the crescent moon just before all hell breaks loose. I tried it -- first the poetry, then the horror -- and suddenly everything came together, the pacing seemed right, and the incident I had been struggling with appeared, at least to me, to be plausible and convincing."

Throughout the rest of the book, she uses examples from some of the great writers to illustrate how to choose the perfect word, write the perfect sentence, put together a great paragraph, etc. Whether you're reader like me who wants to get more out of her reading or an aspiring writer, this is an excellent book. It is amazing what you can get out of reading if you take the time to slow down and look at it more closely. I know it's not possible to read everything this way or I'd only finish a couple books a year; however, for certain books, I think it is a shame not to slow down and delve a little deeper. After all, the author took all that time to embed these little nuggets of literary gold, the least we can do is take the time to appreciate them properly.

Before you think this post is never going to end, I promise I am soon coming to a close. However, I thought I should say a little something about the Bloom book since I mentioned it at the beginning of the post. It's a good book, but it's just not as good as the Prose book. He is more concerned with convincing people that they should read "the best" books. Of course, he goes on to tell you exactly which books are best and why he knows this. It's hard to argue with some of his choices, such as Shakespeare, but I just don't like being told what I should like and what I shouldn't. His writing style certainly doesn't read as fiction as does some of Prose's. He is a brilliant literary critic, and he includes some analysis of some really good pieces, but I just didn't find it as enjoyable or useful. I may have felt differently had I not read these two books so close together. If you're still with me at the end of this long, rambling post, I think that probably means that you feel about books as I do. If this is the case, I highly recommend Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.


Lezlie said...

I respect Harold Bloom, but he can be rather full of himself. :-) Nice post! Now I have to go see what these "book darts" are. . . ;-)


Lisa said...

Lezlie, he's definitely smart but not someone I want to read for pleasure. Book darts are slim, little bookmarks that slip right onto a page to mark a passage in a book. Here's the website:

Nymeth said...

I'm still with you! You definitely got me interested in the Francine Prose book. As for Harold Bloom--meh. Intellectual snobbery isn't something I respect much, and although he no doubt has some qualities, he's a shameless elitist if there ever was one. Also, there are some sexist undertones in his criticism that REALLY put me off.

Lisa said...

nymeth, you put it so much better than I did. In a lot of ways, I think Bloom is a holdover from another time. I think you would really like the Prose book. I'm definitely going to check out some of her fiction now.

BooksPlease said...

The Prose book has been on my wishlist for a while - maybe I should just buy it. I really need to slow down my reading, even if that does mean I read less books. Reading The Gargoyle in a week as I've just done because it was due back at the library and couldn't be renewed was not a good experience. I'm sure I'd have liked it better if I'd read it slowly.

The book darts sound useful - thanks for the link.

Lisa said...

booksplease, This is one that is worth the purchase. I read a library copy, and I'm going to buy it. I can see myself going back and referring to it in the future. I know what you mean about reading to deadlines. It's sort of a catch 22 for me. There are so many books that I want to read, I tend to read them too fast and don't get as much out of them.

Dorothy W. said...

I'm not surprised you liked Prose better than Bloom, but then I'm not much of a Bloom fan. I did really like the Prose book, though. I was impressed at just how closely she reads fiction, and her insights were good. She inspired me to want to read a whole bunch of writers whom I'd never read before. A sign of a good book, right?

Lisa said...

Dorothy, I actually copied the list out of the back of the book, which Prose considers essential reading. I'm definitely going to try some of these that I haven't tried.

JoAnn said...

What a great post! I really enjoyed reading this and found myself nodding in agreement several times. I've check the Prose book out of the library twice, but should probably just buy it.

Rebecca Reid said...

I picked up Reading Like a Writer at a book sale a few months ago -- now I'm quite excited to read it!

I started reading HTR&W last June -- I really appreciate Bloom's intro about some reasons to read. But I completely agree that he is an "intellectual snob." I'm reading his reading list -- almost finished with the short stories-- so I haven't finished the rest of the book yet.

I think the thing with reading lists is that everyone is touched/changed/influenced by different books in different ways. Bloom seems to forget that in his criticisms (and as Nymeth pointed out, he's rather dated in his cultural outlook). Ironically, Bloom said the same thing in his introduction. Too bad the rest of the book doesn't seem to live up to that!

Lisa said...

Joann, I agree -- this is definitely a book to purchase.

Rebecca, it's funny -- like you say, he seems to be aware of his biases but apparently can't/won't change. I'm not committing to reading everything on his list, but I definitely want to read quite a few of them.

AndrewL said...

I also read both of these books recently, and totally agree with your post. I've read more of his 'laymen books' - while I can respect the man, I can't enjoy his work as much as Prose, Fadiman or Manguel.