Sunday, July 18, 2010

How to Read a Novel

Not quite sure why I picked up a book called How to Read a Novel when I haven't even had time to read lately, but I did. The new job is going well, but I've got a longer commute I'm adjusting to and I'm simultaneously trying to start a new marketing focused blog and co-launch a leadership blog and write a book. And my high school reunion was last night. So it's been a little crazy, and I've clearly lost my mind. I think it's because I have so much more energy since quitting my old job and so I'm going crazy starting new projects but not actually finishing anything. I've even started a half dozen new books instead of finishing the ones I was already reading. Being able to walk to the library on my lunch break isn't helping in that area either. I can walk to our large downtown library and browse and read. Unfortunately I've been doing too much browsing and not enough reading.
One book I did manage to finish this week is How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland. I did enjoy this book, but let me tell you, the title is all wrong. It should be How to Buy a Novel or How to Try to Select Novels or something. Since I flipped through it before checking it out at the library I knew what I was getting, but I can see that being off putting to people if you didn't look inside a little more closely.
Sutherland gives suggestions on what to look for in a novel when you're browsing so you can decide if it's worth devoting your limited reading time too. My favorite tip was to turn to page 69 and read it and if you like it, you'll probably like the whole book. People tend to bring their A game to page 1, and by page 69 they've probably burned out if they're going to or hit their stride.
I'll be honest, most of the rest of the advice was kind of not helpful. He mainly said that you can't really trust anything - not the flap, certainly not the quotes, not reviews, not best seller lists. So, to be honest, I didn't really feel like this book was overly helpful in doing what it was supposed to do - tell me how to select novels I'll enjoy reading. And he seems rather anti-Harry Potter so I hold that against him.
However, I liked the book. Sutherland was at his best when he just rambled about books. He packed in a ton of examples of various books, and I enjoyed reading those portions, getting his take on different things. It made me think I would enjoy reading his book reviews. I think that's really where he is strength is. And I was quite happy to note that his one book he would take to a deserted island (excluding the Bible or Shakespeare) would be Vanity Fair. That's one of my all-time favorite books! I was a little surprised because his book tastes seem to run to the more recent, uber-literary types, so I was excited about his choice and explanation.
I found it interesting that during one of his ramblings, he said he thinks all fiction readers fall into one of two camps: you like either Thackeray or Dickens. He admits you can like both (which I indeed do) but that you'll tend to read books that are more like one or the other. He said Thackeray is more conversational, as though the author is telling you a story. Dickens is more theatrical, where you sit and watch the action unfold. That probably does explain why I do prefer Thackeray, and thinking about it, I do prefer books that are more conversational, like the author is sitting next to you telling a story. Swift does this, and Picoult, and Austen, and the Brontes. Those are some of my favorite authors. The Great Gatsby. I like narrators. With Dickens, you feel a little removed from the story. It's more like watching a play/TV show/movie. That may be why a lot of people don't enjoy him as much these days. I felt that way about the works I've read (which isn't much!) of Faulkner and Woolf.
Well, I feel like this blog post was rather a nice tribute to Sutherland since it rather rambles on as well. I'm not sure if this post is helpful in determining if you'll like this book or not. Maybe if you liked the post you'll like the book and vice versa. Regardless, I hope you find great books to read this week! And let me know what you think about the Dickens vs. Thackeray issue. I'm interested to know what you think!


  1. I can't imagine reading this book because I don't really need help in picking books--that's what all my blogger buddies help me do--but I do like the Thackeray vs. Dickens discussion a lot. I also tend to like narrators, and I have to say I like Vanity Fair more than any Dickens book I've read, which is about half of the lot.

    I honestly can't imagine choosing a book based on page 69 of anything. Books are like relationships for me, new ones take a little time but once I'm involved, I rarely bail, unless it's absolute poison.

    Glad to hear you're jazzed about the new job--in my real life, I'm a PR manager and I would be interested in looking at your marketing blog if you're willing to share the url.

    BTW, I have awarded you the Versatile Blogger Award. Visit my blog for details:

  2. Hmm...I liked Vanity Fair more than the Dickens I've read, but since I haven't liked any of the Dickens I've read at all (except Tale of Two Cities), that's not worth much. VF didn't make me want to seek out more Thackeray. I do think of Trollope as my Dickens though! lol

    I read this years ago (I think it was in my college's new books section when it came out) and didn't like it all that much. But I did love another a book I read around that time-How Fiction Works. And I have been using the page 69 rule since then! ;)

  3. Interesting comments on Dickens Vs. Thackeray. I haven't read any Thackeray yet and I'm a bit scared of Vanity Fair but I love Austen, Brontes, etc. and the conversation aspects. That said, I also have lvoed the Dickens I've read (about three or four) and look forward to more and I like the theatrics of it. I think Wilkie Collins is theatrical too. I think it's possible to liek both types of books...

    I think you picked up a book about how to read books because you want to read about a lot of books but obviously don't have time. I've done that too. But I'm usually disappointed and would have preferred the original (i.e. go straight to the novel).

  4. I think you're probably right Rebecca. I wanted a tip for dwindling my TBR pile! I think I just need to actually read books from the pile instead of going to the library so much.
    Jane - I'll definitely share my new blog's URL on here when I'm reading to go live! And thanks for the award!
    Eva - It's nice to see you back around!I keep adding Trollope's books to my TBR pile but haven't actually read him yet. Need to do that soon!

  5. Interesting thought about Dickens vs. Thackeray. I actually like both. I've read more Dickens, but The Way We Live Now was probably the best Victorian novel I've ever read. I agree, Dickens is definitely more theatrical -- didn't he have aspirations for the stage? I read that he wanted to audition for an acting job but had to miss it because he had a cold. He never rescheduled but got a job at a newspaper instead. If he'd gone to the audition maybe he'd never have become a writer.

  6. Karen - That's interesting! I'm really glad he had a cold that day!

  7. I defintiely don't need help choosing books my overflowing bookshelves are fine evidence of that! As for Dickens v. Thackeray, I love Dickens but I like Thackeray too. The styles they both represent are equally wonderful in the right hands. Both Woolf and Austen are top 10 favorite authors of mine.