Reading Like a Writer – Francine Prose
February 18, 2010 § 14 Comments
God is in the details.
It’s a phrase I was taught in architecture school. We were taught to design everything, from the general look of the building, right down to how one piece of wood might join the second. We were told that it’s in the details that everything happens.
Reading Like a Writer also had this to teach me. Reading and writing have always been my two greatest passions in life. But though reading is relatively easy (just pick up a book, and make sense of what someone else has already written), writing something good is a completely different matter. I’ve always heard others tell me that in order to write well, one must read well. But what does it mean to read well, and what can I learn from reading?
The book was a little… well, the way it was presented was a little unexpected. I had expected quotes from different books, naturally, but I definitely didn’t expect quotes from books going 3 pages long. And because Prose was telling us how to pick up pointers and tips of how some of the great writers “do it”, the quoted piece would be followed by some explanation of why the author might have used this word, or how the atmosphere was created by just that woman’s sigh. The book did show me an entirely new way of reading.
I did enjoy the book, though some parts seemed to drag on for quite a bit. And because she quoted from so many of the more classical authors, the ‘masters’, so to speak, and I haven’t read so many of them, I did feel somewhat overwhelmed by all the literature. I felt out of my league, like I didn’t belong. And I also felt a little disturbed. Did she not find any contemporary writers good enough to quote?
I quite liked her style of writing. But I think I got a little tired of how she was dissecting every piece of literature she quoted in the book. A lot of the time, I read and try to connect with the story, the characters, or the spirit of the book. I like to ‘feel’ the book. I like connecting to books on a more emotional level. Though I found it very interesting to find out how some authors used certain methods to create an absurd scene that feel totally believable, I couldn’t help but wonder if I really wanted to be thinking about why Jane Austen decided to not tell us how tall Elizabeth was, or why Kafka described in such detail the calendar on the wall when I read their books.
Still, I think it has done some good things for me.
We begin to want information, entertainment, invention, even truth and beauty. We concentrate, we skim, we skip words, put down the book and daydream, start over, and reread. We finish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have missed, or the ways in which time and age have affected our understanding.
With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that languagae is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realse it may seen obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.
… labor longer, try harder, to return to that trouble spot and rework that imprecise or awkward sentence until it is something to be proud of instead os something you hope that the reader won’t notice.