Prose suggests slowing down readings

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May 1, 2007

1:51 AM

Before there were creative writing classes, before there were expensive seminars led by literary luminaries, before there were CD-ROMs and writing manuals of suspect credibility claiming to help you sell that novel you’ve always wanted to write, there were, well, books. Okay, so those are still around, but for the masters of earlier ages, works of literature were the essential — and often only — source from which they learned the craft of writing. And though many also learned through more formal approaches to reading, in truth they obtained their most instructive knowledge through osmosis of the literary word alone.

[/ As Francine Prose reminds us in her book, “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them,” released in paperback earlier this month, it is through the close reading of authors — the keen attention paid to their diction, sentence structure, narrative style and so on — that we absorb this knowledge and are taught the most formative of literary lessons. These are the original educators, and, as Prose rightly notes, “Who could [ask] for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?” Indeed, it makes sense that those who want to write like the masters they admire should carefully pore over every aspect of their works. But learning to read closely — to really read like a writer — is a skill that needs to be learned, or rather re-learned.

p. We all begin learning how to read slowly, puzzling out those initially inscrutable signs on the page, letter by letter, word by word. Eventually, we get the hang of it and in time speed up for the sake of necessity and convenience. But so often, the demands of everyday life deprive us of the time to slow down again, to really understand what we’re reading. We eventually forget that most essential approach — that slow, methodical and attentive one we first acquired so many years ago. Fortunately, “Reading like a Writer” acts as a reminder — and even a review of the basics of that lost art.

p. For those unfamiliar with Prose, she is not only an author of several fiction and nonfiction works such as “Blue Angel” and “Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles,” but is also an acclaimed professor of creative writing, having taught many sought-after programs at institutions such as Harvard University and Columbia University.

p. In this work, her experience certainly shows. After a brief recollection in the introduction about her own life of letters, she initiates a comprehensive survey of the craft’s mechanics. Here, there are no lofty, abstract discussions on modernism or any other theorizing — just a clear, concise and methodical survey of authors most exemplary of skillful writing. Each chapter focuses on an aspect such as paragraphing and narration, and Prose eloquently reveals the depth of her own mastery as well as a critical eye for instructive examples on each area.

p. In every chapter, she quotes passages from authors who have displayed particular skill with the topic at hand and then articulately explains why his or her approaches are so successful and what can be learned from them. This method is well in line with the book’s premise, as focusing heavily on actual texts forces the reader to immediately begin his or her reading re-education. The breadth of authors she refers to is expansive, ranging from Sophocles to John le Carré, with some surprising choices in between.

p. Prose’s final two chapters diverge from the formula followed in most of the work. One is on the impact of Chekov on her own teaching style and the other on how reading great literature can give us the courage to write with confidence. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she ends with a list of required reading titled, “Books to Be Read Immediately.” This list seemingly spans the entire history of the literary tradition, but it looks as though Prose put careful thought into each recommendation, as it’s an eclectic catalog. For works originally written in languages other than English, she also recommends specific translations.

p. Like Strunk and White’s indispensible “Elements of Style” and its nonfiction-oriented counterpart “On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser, ‘Reading Like A Writer’ will undoubtedly go down as another classic in the pantheon of pedagogical works on writing. It adds a fictional facet to a repertoire heavily focused on grammar and nonfiction styles, or one that otherwise just lectures and theorizes on fiction, such as E.M. Forster’s “Aspects of A Novel” and John Gardener’s “The Art of Fiction.” Prose’s book, on the other hand, uses a uniquely focused and practical approach to teaching the mechanics of fiction writing. Or rather, it teaches us how we can again teach ourselves by giving a second (or third or fourth) close look at the exemplars of good writing. So, for aspiring writers and dedicated readers alike, this work should be an essential addition to the bookshelf.

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