John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel

How to Read a Novel is an eccentric, miscellaneous, diverting, informative and annoying book. Its basic premise is that we can all use some help deciding which of the overwhelmingly many books around us we should read…but at the same time, Sutherland shies away from offering any specific guidance, rather providing readers with tools they can use themselves to make selections from the overabundant options that surround them. Hence his interest in the apparatus surrounding the novel ‘itself’ (titles, jacket blurbs, endorsements, copyright pages, etc.) and in the mechanisms of the book industry (bestseller lists and book prizes, for instance)–all things we can peer at and consider without too great an investment of our precious reading time. As you’d expect, though, Sutherland is also interested in distinguishing wheat from chaff once we actually get deep into a novel, and so throughout the book he includes information, judgments, comparisons, all modelling (rather than prescribing) ways we can understand an author’s project, avoid oversimplistic or alienated readings that miss (or misrepresent, or just misunderstand) the point (see his discussion of John Banville’s criticism of Ian McEwan’s Saturday), and otherwise do better jobs of appreciating and contextualizing what we have gotten ourselves into. There are a number of plot summaries and quoted passages to illustrate or animate his ideas about why it is important to know the kinds of things he talks about; his selections are eclectic, and sometimes chosen, I suspect, for their shock value, to prove he is not simply another stuffy professor preaching that we should read “the classics.” There are a lot of throw-away remarks on current political figures and events: it must be nice to reach the stage of your career in which you figure (and so, apparently, do your editors) that whatever you think on any subject is worth putting into print, however random or irrelevant to the work at hand. I’ll be re-reading this book more carefully as part of my “writing for readers” project, but my first impression is that this is an idly interesting book that doesn’t explore its ideas or examples deeply enough to be engaging or helpful to serious readers, while it deals lightly, even hastily, with too many erudite bits and pieces to be engaging or helpful to readers who aren’t used to taking an analytic approach to books at all.

I was intrigued that Sutherland identifies Vanity Fair as his ‘desert island’ book. I know he’s a Thackeray scholar and all, and I am a big Vanity Fair fan myself, but wouldn’t you get depressed after a while if that was the only thing you had to read? Would you get something new from it on each reading, which is surely essential in that situation? Even Pride and Prejudice (that book that recent studies show most Britons could not live without) would probably wear thin if it were the only book you had. (Of course, my desert island book is Middlemarch, though I’d want a really well annotated edition–maybe the Broadview one, which has copious notes–so I could apply myself to all the scientific, philosophical, and historical aspects that there never seems to be enough time to comprehend fully under ordinary circumstances. Anyone else have a better idea?)

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