Book Review: “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them” by Francine Prose

Finally, I’m getting back on track with my blog posts. Here’s an overdue book review for you. My reading for the past couple of months have been very slow, but it’s been worth it, especially with this book, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.

Finding this book at B&N for $6 was perfect timing. I was getting our house clean for selling; I hardly got any writing done. I needed something writing related to keep me sane as I was chewing my nails, worrying if the next people who came to a house showing would be the ones to buy the house. Reading Like a Writer was the perfect escape for me.

I heard about the book a year ago from listening to the Writer’s on Writing podcast. Francis Prose said on it how surprised she was not to find such a book on the market, that the best way to learn how to write was to read–carefully read–great stories. Her slant in the book was to take it slow, read word by word, sentence by sentence, to get the full impact of how a writer crafted the story.

The excerpts she used in the book are mostly from classics like Dickens and Austin, though she also includes more contemporaries literary authors like Denis Johnson and Scott Spencer. She lists the excerpt, then goes on to pick it apart depending on what the chapter is discussing. On the chapter Sentences, for instance, she quotes an excerpt from Raymond Carver’s “Feathers” and then goes on to say:

“The sentences could hardly be more plain. There are hardly any adjectives except for the gray of the peacock’s feet. And there is that chilling phrase, “conniving streak,” which is all the narrator chooses to tell us about his kid. The lovely Fran has become “his mother,” “Her.” “Especially her”–two words that convey a universe of resentment and estrangement. The sentences break down into sentence fragments, just as they would in speech–in this guy’s speech–punctuating the long bass notes of the sentences that begin: ‘I remember…I recall…I remember…'”

I found Prose’s book very much like a class, a class of one, yes, but I could understand and get what she was trying to get across. I didn’t agree with all the examples she gave, but for the most part, she opened my eyes a lot in studying the different passages. And the advice she gives comes in handy. I liked how in the Narration section, she covers not just 1st and 3rd person point of view, but also the allusive 2nd person, which I’m currently doing a short story in and really appreciated the advice she gave on it.

This is a very different book from most of those writing books out there. It teaches you how to study writing of works so you can imply that knowledge to your own work. She also gives insight on how different writers spun their craft, from Dostoyevsky struggling with the best way to write Crime and Punishment (Prose lists how he wrote several sections “in the first person, as a diary, as confession, as memory, and as a combination of journal and drama”.) to Henrich von Kleist’s deadly flirtation with suicide when he wasn’t working on his novella.

As I went on, I started to try and guess what point Prose was trying to get across from the excerpts. In doing that, I began to discover on my own how to read the excerpts. I began to see the techniques the writers used. There was an especially long passage she listed that as I read it, I slowly begin to realize that two of the characters was of a different race than the protagonist. It’s never mentioned in the excerpt–I had to figure it out for myself from the clues the writer puts in the story. I had fun doing it, and I’m looking to get the book so I can read how things turned out.

In fact, Prose does include a reading list of all the books she excerpts. It’s something I’m seriously thinking about doing–just the other day, I was garage sling (ah, now there’s a verb for ya!) and came across a couple of hardbacks that looked interesting. After picking them up for a quarter apiece, I picked up Prose’s book and lo and behold, one of my books was on her list. (And for the record, let me just say, when it comes to books, garage sales in Madison rocks.) So I already got one book taken care of. 127 books to go.

But as for writing books, I know that this one is a definite keeper. I plan to keep it on my shelf, to page through it on occasion, to mark and highlight the death out of it. It’s not a easy book to read straight through during a weekend. This is a book to take it slow, to savor, to read a page and then sit back and think. And I think that’s how Prose intended it to be. Five books out of five, and if you’re looking for that interview of Prose, you can go right here to get it. Think I’ll listen to it myself.

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3 Responses

  1. Im adding you to my blog roll. I will be back.

  2. Thanks a lot for this review. I missed this book. Now just got to go out and get it!
    Keep reading!

  3. […] wonder if I should blame this on the book I read in April, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. She advocates slow reading in order to distill how a book is written and put together. I just […]

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