Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer is billed as “a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them.” I think Prose does have some good advice for writers in the book, but more than that, this book is, as the blurb from USA Today indicates, “A Love letter to the pleasures of reading.” Prose points to excellent examples of dialogue and characterization. She favors a close reading approach to reading and enjoying literature.
Prose insists, rightly, that if you want to write, you need to be a reader, and she notes that it’s astonishingly true that many young writers are not reading. I have to admit I agree with Prose. I don’t understand why someone who wants to write wouldn’t be reading just about everything. Reading is a proper writer’s education. It was reading other books that made me think I could try to write them, and I just can’t imagine writing without reading.
In the interview at the end of the book, Prose notes, “One of the sad things that I think partly accounts for the decline of the audience for reading and books is that people aren’t being encouraged to read for pleasure” (8). Of book clubs, she says that “[T]hey do get people reading and talking about reading. But on the other hand, when you’re reading for a book club, the whole time you’re thinking, I have to have an opinion and I’m going to have to defend it to these people. The whole notion of being swept away by a book pretty much goes out the window” (8). I think she makes some valid points. I have a lot of students who are not readers. I have some students who become readers (and sometimes, you’d be surprised how little encouragement is needed). The key is that students are choosing to read for pleasure. That’s not to say I think we should do away with required reading. I happen to think sometimes, some real good comes from being required to read a book. Many of my students this year told me they were not looking forward to Frankenstein, but after they read it, they really liked it. Would they ever have picked it up on their own? Maybe not. I know I enjoyed some of the reading I was required to do in school (not all of it, surely). We can pull out the old saw about everything that is competing with reading nowadays, but I think that we have always had readers and nonreaders, even when there wasn’t as much to compete with. Prose thinks that the problem with required reading is often that “[T]eachers are teaching books that they themselves find boring to students who are bored by them. And they’re teaching them in a way that bores the students” (8-9). There’s some unfortunate truth to this observation. In some cases, curricula are so set in stone that teachers have no options about which books they teach. One fortunate aspect of my own teaching position is that I can select all the books my students will study. If teachers are allowed to select books they are passionate about, sometimes that passion transfers to the students. I’m not going to say they’ll always like required reading, but students are more apt to like required reading that the teacher so clearly enjoys.
One very interesting chapter in this book, “Learning from Chekhov,” examines the rules and advice writing teachers give students. Prose notes for each time she has told a student not to do something with writing, she finds an example in Chekhov where it works. I thought that chapter was interesting because it essentially says that the most important rule to know about writing is that there are no rules. It’s a somewhat frightening and liberating idea. What we can do (and should do, in Prose’s view) is use the masters as models.
Prose has some eclectic tastes in literature, and she mentioned a great many books I’d not heard of, much less read. She includes a list of recommended books that includes many of the greats of the Western canon in addition to some surprising choices I wouldn’t necessarily have thought would be on such a list. Examples include mainstays like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, and Moby Dick, but some interesting choices include Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son. I had never heard of this novel, and thus it wouldn’t have been the usual choice for a Dickens novel, I should think. Prose is fond of the Russians, a proclivity that shines through almost every page of this book. I do find it helpful that Prose recommends certain translators for literature that isn’t written in English. It can be daunting to select which version to read when a book has been translated multiple times, and a little guidance is helpful.
I think people who truly love books and reading (especially English majors who live for this sort of thing) will enjoy Prose’s book, but I’m not sure it would be of any help to students who are trying to learn about literature or writing. Instead, I would recommend Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor or How to Read Novels Like a Professor.