I love to read books on writing but I love even more to read books on books. For the past few months I’ve read Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Kevin Smokler’s Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, and attempted to read How Novels Work by John Mullan.
If you’re familiar with my posts, then it’s no surprise that I read Foster’s How to Read Novels Like a Professor. His first book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, was a delightful read and I closed its covers having digested various tips to enrich my reading. How to Read Novels Like a Professor was just as enjoyable. Foster’s quips on the novels he discusses were entertaining. And what a lot of novels he covers! He hardly discriminates, including both contemporary classics like Harry Potter and those of old like Don Quixote. You will end this book with a long list of books to include in a reading challenge, such as the Classics Club’s reading challenge.
Foster’s book is not only for readers and students (student-readers). I highly recommend this book to writers as well. Reading relates to writing so as Foster discusses how to read better he essentially discusses how to write as well. He covers plot, character, dialogue, and all the obvious parts of a story and then some, such as the history of the novel. He discusses how its form came about and how the novel has changed over time. Reading his book is like taking his class. I’ve never taken his classes before (he is a professor of English at University of Michigan, Flint) but because of the wealth of topics covered and how he conveys them, it’s like taking a class with a very friendly professor who knows how to relate potential boring information while keeping the pupil’s interests high.
Like How to Read Literature Like a Professor, the tone is conversational throughout. You might even find yourself responding to some of his rhetorical questions as I did. A plus with reading Foster’s book is that his love of literature is readily apparent. I haven’t read many of the works he mentions but his analyses of them made me want to check them out so I went through the pain of jotting down all the novels he mentions. And it’s a great pain because he mentions, as stated before, many books and didn’t even include a list of them in the back matter of his book. He instead provides a list of novels that furthers one’s knowledge of the form of the novel. That annoyed me but not much. I plan to take a look at some of the works listed there as well.
Also like his previous book, Foster reiterates his advice that students not shy away from forming their own interpretations of the text since everyone carries their own experience to it and walks away with something different. I think that’s one of the best messages in the books. The structure of Foster’s How to Read books are similar containing chapters with hilarious titles and interludes interspersed between them. For this one, Foster provides laws to guide us in reading like a professor. They are scattered throughout the text but I have listed them below this reflection.
Smokler’s Practical Classics was a wonderful read as well. He covers books that readers would have encountered in high school and divides his chapters into sections based on the dominant theme of the texts. I must admit that I became a bit jealous of him the more I read. I admire the way he presents his analyses of the texts. I really want to reach that level. His reviews of the books are engaging and, like Foster, his love of literature easily shines through. He describes what the books are about, throws in a little detail on the author’s background, then gives a short analysis on the text. It all flows smoothly and is not at all boring or convoluted.
I think Smokler’s Practical Classics is a great place to start if you’re trying to figure what classics to read. It’s also a great book to pick up if you have to read one of the many books he mentions for a class. Say, if you’re running late for class and didn’t do the reading, just read Smokler’s chapter on the book and you’ll be good for like the first discussion on the text if it’s a one hour class and there’re more than ten students in the class. Of course, if the professor is a trickster and decides to assign a short, in-class essay on the reading, then you’re on your own.
But I prefer when I’ve read the books Smokler discusses because I can compare his reaction to the story to my own and note our similarities and differences. For example, for some reason he believes Sula was an easier read than The Bluest Eye, to which I strongly disagree. I found The Bluest Eye to be an easier read. Though I read it at a very young age, I could easily identify what was going on in the text. But Sula? Half the time I was reading Sula I was confused. I also read that at a young age and tried re-reading it in high school and still had a difficult time understanding it. I think I’ll return to both books again just to see how my reactions to them have changed.
And that’s the point of Smokler’s book: To introduce readers to the classics, yes; but also to compel readers to revisit them. Another element of the book I like is Smokler’s suggestions of when to read the books and also his “idea for office mischief” placed, obviously, in his chapter on Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” So yeah, Smokler can be a bit playful too.
Mullan was not playful. Not that he had to be but his How Novels Work was a tough read. I found it dry, stiff, a bit stuck-up but definitely informative. As such, I was unable to finish it. I just couldn’t bear to stick with it to the end. My mind often wandered while reading and the smallest distraction was often enough for me to stop reading and go off on a tangent. So I placed it aside and stuck with Foster instead who covered how novels work adequately.
- The Law of Getting Started: The opening is the first lesson in how to read the novel.
- The first page can tell you: style; tone; mood; diction; point-of-view; narrative presence; narrative attitude; time frame; time management; place; motif; theme; irony; rhythm; pace’ expectations; character; and instructions for how to read the novel. Foster, of course, goes in detail on each of these.
- The Law of Bogus Locales: Places in a work of fiction are never real but must behave as if real.
- Settings have to be “functional in their own context.”
- The Law of Look Who’s Talking: The narrator of a fictional work is an imaginative and linguistic construct, every bit as much as the characters or events.
- Not only does Foster lists and describes the different narrator types, he also discusses the advantages and disadvantages of using them (great tips for writers).
- The Law of Narrative Unreliability: Stop believing the narrator when you see the word “I.”
- “Oftentimes character-narrators simply don’t know what’s going on or can’t fully process what they see.” Sometimes the first-person narrator know the truth but don’t want us to know.
- The Law of Hearing Voices: The narrative voice in a novel is a device invented by the writer.
- Voice is all about word choice and word order.
- The Law of Conservation of Characters: Thou shalt not burden the punters with needless character development.
- When establishing character, less is better; of course, there are exceptions. Foster covers them too.
- The Law of Bad Actors: We will follow the exploits of villain-heroes, but only if they give us something in return.
- The Law of Chapter and Verse: A chapter, as a section that makes sense for its particular novel, follows no rules but its own.
- The Law of Universal Specificity: You can’t write about everywhere or everyone, only about one person or one place.
- “If you want to write about everybody, start with one person, in one place, doing one real thing.”
- The Law of People and Things: Characters are revealed not only by their actions and their words, but also by the items that surround them.
- “The things…associated with a character typically reveal aspects of his personality as well as key ingredients of the story.”
- The Law of Narrative Diction: By their words shall ye know them.
- “Word choice and placement and combination act to define a writer’s style, texture, tone, mood.”
- The Law of Novelistic Style: There are no rules for sentence length and structure except those dictated by the novel in which they’re used.
- “The novel will dictate what sort of sentences it requires; the sentences will determine the sort of novel that can be written.”
- The Law of Streaming Narrative: All representations of consciousness are arbitrary and artificial.
- The Law of Character Clarity: To understand characters, you have to know their deepest desires.
- Usually, we know what the character really wants by what they obsess on.
- The Law of Crowded Desks: When a novelist sits down to begin a novel, there are a thousand other writers in the room.
- The Law of Novel Paradox: Novels grow out of intensely private obsessions, which writers then must make public and accessible to readers.
- “They have to make us care about something that we may never even have thought about, and make it seem like our own idea.” (Lol, sounds like writers are con artists.)
- The Law of Universal Connectedness: Every novel grows out of other novels.
- The Law of Us and Them: Readers choose the degree to which they identify with characters.
- The Law of Fictional Ideation: It doesn’t make any difference how good the philosophy is if the fiction is lousy.
- “The novels that last, and have something to say, capture us with narrative, then hit us with ideas.”
- The Law of Narrative Unity: The best way to organize a novel is the way that makes the most sense for that particular book.
- The Law of Shutting Doors: The degree of closure in the ending of a novel is in direct proportion to the eagerness of the novelist to please his audience.
- The Law of Now and Then: Every novel is an act of violence, a wrestling match with the historical and social forces of its own time.
- The Law of All Reading: Own the novels you read. (Poems, too. Also stories, essays, plays).
- Good novels go beyond the text. “Good readers invest themselves in novels in ways that stretch the text.”
Quotes from How to Read Novels Like a Professor:
“We each bring a great deal of our own lives, our own perspectives, our own reading of other works, to each new novel that we’ll never see the same things.”
“Meaning in fiction is the result of a conspiracy between two minds and two imaginations.”
“Writing grows out of experience…So does reading.”
- What to Read on the Subway This Week: 9/9 (thedailymuse.com)
- Books to Books: From the Inside Out (A Guest Post) (shimer.edu)
- Rereading Old Classics Made Him Learn New Lessons, Says Writer Kevin Smokler (booksnreview.com)
- Reading Kubrick’s Lolita and A Clockwork Orange (sherylputhur.wordpress.com)
- First Foster, then Frye. (bobrbogle.com)