Today was my last day of classes, and I feel like I’m in an in-between state — it’s not quite summer yet, but it’s so close, and so I’m tempted to start all kinds of new books because I can feel some free time opening up in front of me. I’ll have plenty of work to do over the summer (including teaching a class), but I’ll certainly have a lot more time for reading than I do during the semester, and I’m so looking forward to it! But for right now, I still have papers and exams to grade, and meetings and workshops to attend, and so I probably should hold off on starting all those books I’d like to start.
I did, however, begin Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer last night, a book I requested from the library and which came much sooner than I thought it would. As I don’t plan on becoming a writer (in the sense of someone who writes creative stuff for purposes of publication), I’m not reading it for the writing advice, but it looked interesting for what it says about reading.
So far I’m feeling rather ambivalently about the book. I like the advice about reading — I’ve now read the chapter on Prose’s reading and educational history and the one entitled “Words” about how we should read slowly in order to pick up on the significant word choices writers make, although describing it in this way makes her advice seem incredibly obvious and dull. I suppose this sort of book lives in the examples, and her examples are fun to read. She does a particularly good analysis of the opening to Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
The other pleasure in reading this book must surely be in picking up some reading recommendations. So far, Prose has me interested in reading more Katherine Mansfield and has made me want to read and re-read some Chekhov. There’s a fun list of “Books to be Read Immediately” in the back of the book, although a quick glance through it tells me that there’s no way I’m reading all those books immediately; there are many, many of them that I haven’t read.
At some points Prose’s attitude bothers me; I really didn’t like her dismissive attitude toward literary theory. I’m most certainly no big theorist myself, but I get tired of the way smart people bash literary theory in stupid ways. She assumes that people who “do theory” don’t love literature — that the two are mutually exclusive — and that’s an assumption I just don’t buy. Prose sounds as dismissive of theory as she says theorists are of literature. I’ve known too many people who love literature and who use theory brilliantly to help them understand it to believe her argument.
That aside, the book should be interesting, and I’m guessing that besides the pleasure it brings, it will be most useful to me in the way I teach literature — I would like to know more about the craft of writing in order to discuss that more intelligently with students. Prose talks about her own experiences teaching literature, and I was interested to read about her methods — she likes to go through a story or through a passage word by word, sentence by sentence, digging out the meaning slowly and systematically. Now, there’s no way I’m teaching like that because to me it sounds deadly boring (surely she must have ways of making that fun — but what?), but I do like the idea of balancing wide-ranging discussions of themes with close critiques of passages, something I do already, but could do more of, I’m sure.