Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. [ISBN-13: 978-0-06-077705-0]
Seeing Francine Prose speak last week galvanized me into finally posting on a book of hers I read last winter. Reading Like a Writer is your chance to sit in Prose’s classroom, where you’ll pull out your magnifying glass to examine just what it is that makes some of the finest books around really tick. This is a course in close reading that everyone can take.
Close reading is one of my favourite ways into the bones and sinews of a good book. You know the kind of book I mean—the book in which every word, detail, and turn of phrase feels as if it is the only one that could fit, as though it were somehow ordained from the beginning? Yeah, I’m remembering some of those books fondly right now…
But to get back to what I was saying, close reading asks you to slow down and ask yourself why the author chose that particular name for the little girl, why you don’t believe the aunt when she says she’s not drinking anymore, why it was Liberace playing on the radio when the taxi crashed. Each of these details reflects the broader story and each one can uncover another of its secrets.
Now, just as every good sleuth studies the case files of the great detectives who came before them, you can read Prose’s chapters on words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, and gestures to learn how to unravel the mysteries your favourite books may still be concealing from you.
Prose provides a wealth of literary examples to show you what to look for: how Edith’s tepid and ill-fitting replies reveal that she’s just not that into Albert, how a boiled potato in a spreading pool of blood can make a scene more chilling, how the movements of a housefly can reveal the mind of its tormentor. After reading her examples, drawn from so many excellent books and stories, you’ll be glad to find that Prose has included all her sources in a list of “Books to Be Read Immediately.” And when you’re done this book, if you’re like me, you’ll be tempted to head back to all your favourite reads with an eye for what’s there that you haven’t yet seen.