I am sure that I have mentioned elsewhere how much I enjoy books about books, so it was no surprise that I would fall for How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland. Sutherland has produced a number of books on literary puzzles (such as Is Heathcliff a Murderer?) which, besides being enjoyable reads, sent me off in search of classic novels that I knew of but hadn’t read before. For that reason I had high expectations of a book designed (according to the blurb) to be a guide on how to read well, how novels work, and the economics and culture of publishing. I wasn’t disappointed. The Book God was very exasperated at the number of times I read bits out to him, but bore it well.
Sutherland works from two assumptions (1) novels are meant to be enjoyed, and (2) the better we read them, the more enjoyable they can be. He quotes Virginia Woolf, “The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading, is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.”
The main things I took away from this:
- know your taste
- use bestseller lists by picking up titles while they are near the bottom so that you don’t come to them too late (ie when everyone else is reading them – see the Da Vinci Code, which everyone seemed to be reading at the same time, at least on the Tube)
- you can gain a lot of context from looking at the date and publication history and then do a little digging
- if there is an epigraph it’s generally worth reading, for more context
I have also been putting the McLuhan Page 69 test into practice – if you aren’t sure whether you will like a book, flick to page 69, read that, and if you like it, you’ll like the book. It’s working so far!