On the 270th page of Francine Prose's 2006 bestseller Reading Like a Writer there begins a list, apparently compiled by Prose, of “Books to Be Read Immediately.” When I first read Prose's book, which I purchased a couple of years ago as a three-for-the-price-of-two deal at Barnes & Noble (along with Thomas C. Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor and my third copy of Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin'), I used a red pen to mark off the ones I already had under my belt.
When I tallied the results, I discovered I had read a mere 12 out of Prose's 100 or so must-read books. This month, after reading Prose's book again, I turned to her list and made, perhaps, four more red marks.
Several questions came to mind then: Why did Prose include so many translated works on her list when she so stresses the importance of careful, “slow reading” of the writer's own words? Why does she believe King Lear is more important to read than, say, Hamlet? If Prose finds Catcher in the Rye less worthy than Franny and Zooey, why do we keep inflicting hapless Holden on our school children? Perhaps, most important to me and my intellectual relationship with Prose: How many red marks would she be able to make if I gave her my own list of “Books to Be Read Immediately”?
Arguing with Prose's central premise, that writers learn to write in large part by reading (Reading Like a Writer, page 2), would fly in the face of all I have experienced and believe, both as a writer and as a teacher of writing. Based on the results of a first-day-of-school writing assignment, I can easily pick out which students spent the summer reading and which ones spent it hand in hand with a video-game controller. For my own part, I have read voraciously for the past 35 years, and was read to obsessively for the five years before that. The public library was my favorite babysitter. Summers, my father would drop me off there on the way to work and pick me up, after prying my fingers from a book, on the way home.
I also laud Prose for urging readers to take it slow, reading one sentence at a time and digesting it thoroughly before moving on. This is rarely done, and I agree with her stance that it needs to happen more in high school English classes all over America. However, Prose herself admits that most of the learning writers do while reading is subconscious.
“Though writers have learned from the masters in a formal, methodical way — Harry Crews has described taking apart a Graham Greene novel to see how many chapters it contained, how much time it covered, how Greene handled pacing, tone, and point of view — the truth is that this sort of education more often involves a kind of osmosis.” (Reading Like a Writer, page 3)
My primary issue with Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them is that it ceases to be a guide immediately after page 12 and becomes, instead, a guided tour of the books Prose loves and the fascinating things she's found in them. Prose becomes the guide then, taking readers on a safari of the interesting and beautiful beasts she's met along the way. In the jungle of chapter two, “Words,” Prose advises us to step carefully through O'Connor's grammatical structures, pointing out the clarity of his sentences and how he spares us from injury via, perhaps, a low-hanging dangling particle. Then she takes us into the savanna of “Sentences” (chapter three), the “Paragraph” pits, the never land of “Narration,” etcetera, etcetera — all the while pointing out scenic vistas along the way.
Is Reading Like a Writer a guide? No. It's a guide's book, certainly. Without hesitation, I trust Prose to know how to navigate the written word. But her book doesn't offer me the tools to do it myself. If I were coming into this cold, looking for help rather than to share Prose's appreciation of good writing, I'd be lost. At journey's end, I know what gold she has found in her reading life. I am ignorant, however, of how to seek out the treasures in the books I choose to read. By osmosis? By reading slowly? She gave me that advice in chapter 1.
And maybe that's the point. Prose tells her students, in chapter 10, that they should ignore everything she's said to that moment and just read Chekhov (Reading Like a Writer, page 239).
Just read. And learn a thing or two by example. Prose and I might have different must-read lists; we'd likely argue over which Shakespeare play is the best. But we can agree on that.