Saturday, February 7, 2009

Book Review: How to Read a Novel

At first glance, John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel did not strike me as a fun read. Looking at it in the bookstore, I figured that it would be interesting and (as a teacher) probably very useful, but I did not count on it being particularly enjoyable. Luckily, I was wrong. While How to Read a Novel does provide ideas and lessons on how to read fiction, its fresh perspective on approaching the novel and Sutherland's entertaining writing style help make it a (mostly) accessible and very enjoyable book for anyone interested in the ins and outs of the novel.

Rather than simply focusing on the novel's actual writing, Sutherland tackles all of the novel's components. Besides giving some background on the novel and why it is in no danger of extinction despite the use of electronic readers, Sutherland also discusses little-mentioned components of the book, such as the typeface, the blurbs, and the author's pictures often found on the book's back cover. While this might sound somewhat tedious, the information and analysis that Sutherland offers is very informative and entertaining. For instance, the chapter devoted to first lines discusses the role that first lines have for both the committed reader (a person who has already decided to purchase and read the book) and the bookstore browser. It ends with the assertion that first lines "should never be taken at face value" in terms of seeing them as a reflection of the rest of the novel, but Sutherland also acknowledges their importance in setting up the story's tone (if not the entire theme).

One caveat I will note is that How to Read a Novel is not a book that will keep you up past your bedtime so that you will get to the end. In fact, I found that I enjoyed the book best when I read it in short spurts. Not only do the brief chapters encourage this, but the amount of information Sutherland presents also makes it almost imperative to take time and digest the ideas before proceeding. The other limitation of this book (at least for some readers) is Sutherland's numerous references to both other literary works and to British cultural touchstones. While most of these references are easy to understand because of the author's pithy explanations, they occasionally serve as an unwanted and unnecessary distraction from the book at hand.

Despite these minors complaints, I highly recommend How to Read a Novel for you or for the bibliophile in your life. It is well-written and thought-provoking, a combination that eludes many guides to literature. Furthermore, Sutherland's text may help you appreciate aspects of the novel that you may never have considered or reconsider characteristics that you may have long forgotten.