Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Whoever predicted the death of the book couldn’t have been more wrong. There are more books around today than ever before — so many, in fact, that a whole genre of books about reading has emerged just to help us make sense of them all. This genre has, in the last few years, developed so rapidly that a new example seems to appear on the shelves every month. I recently had the pleasure of reviewing 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley, in which, stymied by the frustrations of her latest work, Smiley recounts her decision to shut down her laptop, put her feet up, and re-read 100 of her all-time favorite novels. Francine Prose, like Jane Smiley, is perhaps best known as a fiction writer — she’s the author of The Blue Angel and Household Saints, among other well-received novels — so my initial concern was that, coming so close on the heels of the Smiley book, Reading Like a Writer might be redundant. I needn’t have worried. Not enough can be said about the way we read, and how it connects not only to the way we write, but also to the way we live.

Reading Like a Writer is a detail-oriented meditation on the subtle and undervalued craft of good reading. While many of us are proud of reading regularly, voraciously, or eclectically, how many of us really pay close attention to what we read? How many of us know how to read well? In this increasingly fast-paced, image-driven culture, it’s generally taken for granted that, as long as you can read and write well enough to function in the world, as long as you can read the newspaper and road signs, send text messages and e-mails, you’re pretty much all set. As Francine Prose reminds us, however, advanced reading skills don’t come naturally, but are acquired gradually, through constant and careful practice, much like learning to play a musical instrument, with ever more intricate variations.

The book’s main course is a gourmet dinner of advice about close reading. Each chapter is devoted to a particular element of style, from words and sentences to paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, and gesture. Points are illustrated with the ample help of personal anecdotes, biographical vignettes, and lots of extracts and quotations from an egalitarian roster of authors, from the acknowledged “greats” (James Joyce, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf) to the less well-known and, according to Prose, considerably undervalued (John Le Carr√©, Henry Green, Heinrich von Kleist). These extracts, while lengthy, serve to remind us how much we can learn when we give good writing the attention it deserves, and how subtle and discreet skilful prose has to be.

Dessert is two chapters: one on how to learn from Chekhov, and another on how reading can bring you courage in your own writing, plus a list of “Books to Be Read Immediately.” Don’t let this commanding tone make you think Francine Prose is a stern, Lynne Truss-type fuddy duddy, exasperatedly throwing up her hands at the bad habits of today’s readers and writers — not at all. It’s just that she truly believes that reading is a craft, with certain pleasures associated with it, and that, like all crafts, it should be practiced both for its own sake, and to give you strength and courage to write yourself. Most importantly, perhaps, she reminds us that reading and writing aren’t separate skills but integral to one another, and (as long as you continue to write regularly), the more you read, and the more carefully you read, the better your own writing will become.

Note: A portion of this review was published in Readers Delight: 2006 in Books, PopMatters, 17 January 2007.