How to read a book like a writer

Reading like a writer

How to read a book? Well, it’s simple, dummy, you just open it up and start from the beginning and keep going till you get to the end of the damn thing.

I’ve read a whole library of books since I was a nipper. Most of us writer types have. It’s easy, you simply pick up a book, any book, and start reading.  Up until recently, I’ve never thought terribly hard about my reading habits. Of course I’ve thought about what I read over the years. But I’ve never really considered HOW I read.

I’m adept at reading. Therefore I read fast. That’s not a problem, is it? I rush through books. There are so many books to read, so little time. You’ve got to rush!

Then I picked up a book called Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose.

I recommend it if, like me, you’ve been reading books for a while and never wondered whether you were getting the best out of them.

Who’d have thought it, huh? All these years, I’ve been doing it wrong.

How to read a book?

You see, Francine Prose advocates slow reading. All too often we brush over sentences without thinking about their meaning too deeply, without wondering why the author uses that turn of phrase, why that word at that particular moment.

We fly over the pages, quickly discerning the plot but seldom digging down into the minutia of the book.

Those little details that make its content more meaningful and profound.

Those small brush strokes on the page that not only further enlighten us but can show us would-be authors the way to improve our own writing.

Since reading her book, I have slowed down my reading. It’s quite a painful process. You see, I’m trying to break a habit of a life time – a bit akin to quitting smoking if you like.

All too often I find myself dropping back into that old habit, racing over those pages as the text draws me in. I have to force myself to slow down again, open my eyes wide and take a deep breath and look at the words, the structure, more closely.

For a writer this is one of the most valuable skills you can develop but one that is often, sadly, ignored. You can read all the books on writing and technique out there, and the number is considerable, but the real value is in close reading (and re-reading) of those books that have had an impact over the years. I’m talking about the memorable ones. What makes them tick? Why were they written? What profound things do they have to say?

Those words weren’t just thrown on the page in a random way, they have been refined by the writer, polished. Blood and sweat have gone into those words and we, as readers, have a duty to regard them more closely.

The value, in the best stories, is in the words. You can learn far more from a close read of a great book than you can from any of the writing manuals out there.

Francine Prose takes examples from a range of literary heavyweights such as Rebecca West, Raymond Chandler, Isaac Babel, Earnest Hemmingway, Anton Chekhov and Flannery O’Connor. Within her book there is advice about words, sentences, and paragraphs, about narration and character, about dialogue, and a multitude of other things that encourage you to open your eyes.

The book makes you to take a more considered approach to reading, one that can prove difficult if you are just curling up by the fire place with a good book and a glass of wine but is infinitely more rewarding.

It seems like a lot of hard work, doesn’t it? I mean, reading is supposed to be fun, isn’t it?

It takes constant monitoring, I can tell you. It is a “harder” way to read. But I’ve found it’s worth it.

At the moment, I’m going over Ray Bradbury again and I’ll have more to say about him in a later blog. It’s a joy to read him more closely – I suddenly get him more deeply than I did before and I’m learning a lot about the writing process.

I had the same experience recently with HP Lovecraft. I have to admit I used to struggle with him. But then I slowed down. I wasn’t panicked into reaching the end of the story (something I didn’t even realise was a problem until I started thinking about my reading habits).

I took my time and I began to enjoy.

I mean, really enjoy.

Since reading Francine’s book, I’ve also found myself taking a similar approach with films and TV. Instead of letting it wash over me, I’m starting to think on why a particular scene is there, what’s the purpose of that line the actor just spoke. A new habit is forming.

How to read a book? Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

2 thoughts on “How to read a book like a writer

  1. I love writing and reading. I already tried this advice tried with the only writer who’s work I simply cannot bear. It didn’t help. As much as I try to engage with his novels they’re simply too dour and tedious. Happily he’s the only one.

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