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How to Read a Novel (thoughts)

February 16, 2007

I’ve been a bad little blogger, not updating for almost a week. I didn’t really feel like reviewing Inheritance of Loss, so I just avoided the blog in general. Finally, I’ve decided it’s easiest to just explain that I don’t like reviewing books that I didn’t enjoy, it depresses me, so I’m not going to do it.

Since my last post, I’ve been on a bit of a reading kick, leaving plenty of material for reviews. And, trust me, most of them really deserve reviews. Today, though, I’m going to talk about a little book I picked up off my library’s new collection shelf.

How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland is a nonfiction book, mainly about the author’s views on reading. The book is hypothetically constructed around helping someone (I can only assume an alien, see next paragraph) choose a book to read (more than actually reading it). In practice, this is mainly a conceit so that Sutherland can divide his impressions on books and reading.

The book has one big drawback: the ‘advice’ sections are mind-blowingly ridiculous. Unless Sutherland’s audience is an alien who has never been to a bookstore, a lot of what he’s written is pointless. He tells you that the year of publication is on the copyright page and has a helpful picture of a copyright page with the publication year pointed out. I think even kindergarteners know about the copyright page. His point-out-the-obvious apprach doesn’t end there; most of his ‘advice conclusions’ at the end of the chapter are just as unhelpful. For example, discussing genre fiction, his final advice to the reader is to look at one’s shelves, and figure out which genre one enjoys. Then, go buy more of it. Gee, thanks. The other issue I have with the book is how misleading the title is. It should be called How to Buy a Novel. There is an entire chapter weighing the choice between hardcover v. paperback. However, there is no chapter on literary theory, literary styles, etc.

That being said, I’m glad that I read this book. His discussion of the process of choosing a book at the bookstore rang very true, and in many ways his prose is like chatting with someone you just met in Barnes and Noble. A very learned, Book-Prize-committee-chair someone who is a trifle condescending. The book includes a lot of background about bookmaking, bookbuying, and book popularity through the ages. Sutherland also looks at some novels more in depth, putting them in their social mileau, or examining them for similar themes. It’s also a quick read. So, if you’re willing to overlook the sillier sections, I think the book’s worth reading for the historical digressions. Just don’t expect to learn how to read a novel. :)

Oh, and be sure to check out the back cover. It’s tongue-in-cheek hilarity!

Favorite Passages

Titles, it seems, often set out to inaugurate a game between author and reader-a game which, if the novel works, will add immensely to the reader’s pleasure. (93)One of the disadvantages of viewing, or previewing, a screen (film or TV) version of a novel, particularly a classic novel, is that it can ‘fix’ your mental imagery too rigidly-infringe your privilege as reader of casting the aprts, setting the scene and playing out the narrative yourself. (236)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bybee permalink
    February 17, 2007 5:47 am

    I saw this book, and gave it the go-by. The title put me off: How To Read A Novel. My hackles rose: Hey, buddy, I’ve been reading novels since 1969!
    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it, anyway.
    Re: not liking to review books you don’t like…hmm, that’s where I have the most fun. It’s hard for me to review books that I do like because I’m worried that I’ll leave out key information and as a result, won’t inspire others to go right out and read it. Or I’ll say too much and do a spoiler.

  2. Victoria permalink
    February 17, 2007 11:36 am

    :-) I thought it was pretty ridiculous too…and I’d *bought* it in hardback. Grrrr… Parts were pleasant enough, but I was horribly frustrated the rest of the time. A slip of a book for someone so famous for the their inflated view of themselves. I was reading it during the furore he created about the horror of lit blogs and online reviewers…I wanted to throw his silly little book at him.


  1. The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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