I've always been a little skeptical of "how-to" books. I'm not worried about books that show me how to fix a faucet, but ones that try to tell me how to be a novelist or poet concern me. So, it was with some trepidation that I picked up Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. Rather than the self-indulgent pedantry I expected, the book presents a critical and well-crafted examination of the power and importance of reading good books.
With 14 novels, four non-fiction books, one YA book, and five children's books to her credit, Prose has certainly proven herself a writer. It is her experience as a teacher, however, which gives the book such a careful, studied air. While she often speaks from personal experience, sometimes to a fault, she puts most of her discussions in a classroom context. Indeed, I found reading it much like attending a graduate seminar. I worked my way through it slowly, approaching each chapter as a new lecture. Prose's narrative voice is such that it's easy to imagine yourself sitting in a room and listening rather than reading. The flip side of this, though, is that stopping in the middle of a chapter is often just as jarring as going home in the middle of class.
Past the introduction, the book uses an impressively controlled structure to analyze the benefit of reading. In a slowly expanding spiral, Prose begins in the second chapter with "Words," and moves onto "Sentences," "Paragraphs," "Narration," "Character," "Dialogue," "Details," and "Gesture." Speaking abstractly, it's as though she holds a book right up to her reader's face and then gradually pulls it back, explaining it along the way. Each chapter is peppered with quotations, some a page or more long, from stories both popular and obscure. Prose uses the excerpts to both illustrate the points she makes and as opportunities to speak passionately about authors who have shaped her own writing.
In chapter six, "Character," she manages to connect two writers who seem to have little in common, and does so with breathtaking skill. She begins by breaking down Heinrich von Kleist's novella The Marquise of O–, a piece I had never heard of before. Working chronologically through the plot, she uses several long quotations to explain how the author's manipulation of action and inaction contribute to the reader's understanding of a complex cast of characters. With only the slightest pause, she moves into a discussion of Jane Austen's more cerebral characterization methods. By emphasizing the economy of language and precise staging employed by both writers, Prose argues convincingly that the two are cut from the same cloth. All the while, she periodically returns to her classroom, recalling the effect such technical examinations had on her students.
In chapters 10 and 11, the tightly controlled spiral of thought which I find so engrossing seems to unravel a bit. Ten, "Learning from Chekov," is basically an encomium. It reads much more like memoir than literary criticism, as Prose discusses the personal growth she found in reading the Russian master. There is no doubt that a close reading of Chekov's technical genius can benefit any writer, but the placement of such a discussion seems awkward and a touch redundant. Chapter 11 is called "Reading for Courage," and covers the ways in which great writers have always had to overcome both internal and external expectations. While I took great inspiration in the stories told, as I think was the intent, the tonal and structural departure from the rest of the book left me a little disappointed in the end.
Despite the cover, which reads "A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them," this is not for the intellectually faint of heart. It's an erudite argument for the joy and value of reading. More than that, though, I found it a great encouragement to reading literary fiction. Indeed, through Prose's book, I came away with a fuller knowledge of the works she cites and an interest to read more. If you've ever felt overwhelmed by the plethora of "great" books, Reading Like a Writer is an excellent place to start for both suggested titles and the wisdom to read them well.