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Book Corner  January 2007

Reading Like A Writer
by Francine Prose
New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.  Pp. 273

Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl

            This book's purpose is spelled out in the sub-title: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.   Whether you fall in one or both of these categories, this work is autobiographical, thoughtful and pleasing to anyone who loves the written word.

            Prose's chapters constitute a series of reflections on writing based on her own broadly based experiences as a teacher and author in varied genres:  adult fiction; non-fiction, young adult writing and works for children.  She comes honestly to the disputes around issues of whether or not creative writing can be taught and the role of doctoral studies in producing teachers and writers of literature.

            The primary impact which this work had on me is creating an awareness of Prose's profound respect and engagement in close readings of any chosen text.  In the Internet and information age, the glut of information has seriously challenged the value of in-depth, thoughtful immersion in a single text.  Her invitation to the reader/writer to value the written word in a significant way is underscored by the arrangement of the book's chapter.  She moves from Words to Sentences to Paragraphs to Narration and then takes up the realities of Character, Dialogue, Details and Gesture.  These chapters are applied to readings of many past and contemporary authors.

            Insights abound in this work.  "...I was struck by how little attention they [students] had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used.  Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born." (10) Another jewel she mines from the field of literature is this observation on the subtle:  "deceptively straightforward stylists who also happen to be masters of subtext, of that place between the lines where so much of the action occurs."  (29)

            Some of Prose's questions are maddening:  "...what is a beautiful sentence?  The answer is that beauty, in a sentence is ultimately as difficult to quantify or describe as beauty in a painting or a human face." (38) She stops the reader in her tracks by asking her to look at the way meaning evolves in thinking of sentences together with their varied rhythms.  "Rhythm gives words a power that cannot be reduced to, or described by, mere words." (56)

             Prose manages to persuade the reader to appreciate the fact that at all levels of textual interpretation, the smallest detail might create worlds, universes of meaning.  Are we reading that way? "Often, a well-chosen detail can tell us more about a character--his social and economic status, his hopes and dreams, his vision of himself--than a long explanatory passage." (198)

             If you read this book and love words, you probably should buy the book rather than check it out as a library loan:  I was constantly restraining my wish to frequently underline in her work.  The greatest gift of Prose's book is the invitation to the reader to consider the acts of reading and writing as carrying the potential for revelation and ever-widening circles of meaning and delight.




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