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How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide by John Sutherland


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This was just a long literary excursion. The advice was so general as to be unhelpful. I was looking for a book that suggested strategies on how to approach a novel that one has picked up and wants to read. ( )
  SusanKrzywicki | Jun 29, 2016 |
A good book for the times you need a book to take with you, when you go to the bathroom to escape your family. ( )
  Gregorio_Roth | Dec 5, 2014 |
I'm not sure that this book really does what it says on the tin, as it doesn't tell you how to read a novel at all! What it does do is to give the reader suggestions on how to get the most out of their novel reading. While the author John Sutherland was a Professor of English this is a book aimed more at the general reader than students of literature but most thoughtful readers would get something out of it. It's a wide ranging book dealing with a diverse range of topics, including: the mechanics of choosing your novel; what can be gleaned from reviews and prize lists; getting clues from the title, chapter headings and epigraph; and the physical aspects of the novel. One of those books which is full of interesting snippets of information such as this comment on margins:

But from the first printed books onward, generous white margins were left as they had been in the codex's manuscript predecessor. It would have been easy for compositors, then and now, to print flush against all four page edges. Instead, some 10 per cent of the page surface is left temptingly white. For what? Marginalia of course. Commentary. Nota benes. The four-sided, flush, verso-recto-balanced margin, standard in very novel, is a hangover from the age of manuscript, when they were there for the 'commentator' - a contributor who would add in marginalia, running heads, footnotes, corrections, embellishments. Now they are great white empty spaces - the result of cultural inertia.

I knew that 'marginalia' were things written in margins but it has honestly never occurred to me that that's what the margins were for, or now that we don't do that we didn't need margins.

One thing I should mention is that this book was published in 2006 and so predates the explosion in ereaders. Things have moved on so much in those eight years that even though the book looks at digital reading as well as physical books, it can't help but sound a little dated. But notwithstanding that, still an interesting read for all book lovers. ( )
  SandDune | May 11, 2014 |
The man is an inveterate reader and a good storyteller, and when he moseys along through his bookish world, I enjoy him very much. Sometimes not, though, such as when his Britishness shines forth as chauvinism rather than wit:

"It is no accident that the novel came into being after the Queen Anne copyright act of 1710, the first in the world." Much as I omitted to take down that sentence's page number, he omits to explain why he overlooks Don Quixote as the first novel, let alone Tale of the Genji. He is discussing the novel as a concept, not specifically early British or English forays, so he ought to have justified naming Robinson Crusoe as the first novel.

A few sentences on, though, he says something equally Anglocentric that I liked:

"Copyright did to storytelling what the 18th century enclosures did to the English countryside."

It's an apt metaphor unless you happen not to be as fluent in English history as you are in the English language.

I want to be confident that what I read in a nonfiction book is accurate. Besides overlooking Don Quijote, he also says, while discussing what a reader does not yet know, that Col. Mustard is killed in the library with the wrench. No, the reader discovers that Col. Mustard, who is alive and well, killed Mr. Boddy. Must I look up whether the year he cites for the copyright act is correct? What can I trust?

Then lots of errors: on instead of or, a skipped initial capital, and wide margins (which he likes, because he likes to take notes) that maybe should have been narrower to allow for more generous kerning. I do not like to read text likethis.

Plus he dropped a spoiler for The Wasp Factory, though he did give a warning before doing the same for The Human Stain. I assume he reasoned that because the former is British (though Scottish, not English), of course everyone has read it, while a little book by an American-thus-minor author is obscure. I suggest this, mostly facetiously, because it leads to another Anglocentrism: He says on p. 97 that it is "curious" to discover that The Great Gatsby is the most studied novel in U.S. high schools. Why is it curious?
  ljhliesl | May 21, 2013 |
Based on the title, I expected to learn how to best reap the rewards of a good novel, how to pay attention to subtleties of plot, character, setting, theme, symbols, etc. That is not what the book gives, however, and I was disappointed. [a:John Sutherland|1265|Jane Austen|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1176491679p2/1265.jpg] was very interested in talking about novels he's encountered and talking ABOUT the novel as a medium, but he's not giving a course on reading literature as I understand "reading" to mean. It finally dawned on me: the title [b:How to Read a Novel|43409|How to Be Lost A Novel|Amanda Eyre Ward|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1170106818s/43409.jpg|3257732] refers to reading a book in the way you might 'read' a person. That is, 'read' the clues they present to ASSESS who they are and what they're about to better understand the person. So with books -- Sutherland is telling us how assess (or read) novels using clues like title, font, endorsements, first sentence, genre, epitaphs, copyright dates, etc, to help the reader select the books he/she wishes to read. Such a re-interpretation of the title makes the book more interesting, but it still did not quite enthrall me.

To save you the time, here are some of the tips Sutherland suggests:
1) Follow [a:Marshall McLuhan's|455|Marshall McLuhan|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1243193001p2/455.jpg] advice: When looking for a book to read, read page 69 of the book; if you like it, read the book. (I like this suggestion; it's practical and works like 3:16)
2) It's better to read a book on the bottom of the bestseller's list and will move up, than to join the 'game late' and read the book of the moment. (I don't understand his rationale, which is more against following the crowd than on choosing a good book.)
3) Compare the date of the book's publishing with when it was written for more accurate historical context. (Too much work!)
4) Endorsements on the cover are meaningless. (No kidding.)
5) Buy authors with whom you are familiar. (Duh.)
6) Titles can suggest what the book will be about, may give no clue, or may not make sense until the book has been read. (With this book, I think the title gives the book a false impression -- the book is more about novels, their history, and their quirks.)
7) Read epigraphs, forwards, and afterwords.
8) First lines are as useful as titles. (see my #6)
9) Try a different genre every now and then.
10) Note the font, size, and spacing of print -- look at the page as a whole, not just the words.

That's about as far as I got before I lost interest in the book. Sorry.
( )
  LDVoorberg | Apr 7, 2013 |
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I recall one evening walking to the underground with A. S. Byatt, after a day's teaching. We were both then lecturers in the same English Department. Why, I asked, did she publish so much higher journalism ...?
A clever engagement with a novel is, in my opinion, one of the more noble functions of human intelligence. ... It is, I would maintain, almost as difficult to read a novel well as to write one well.
Reading, done well, is an act of self-definition.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312359888, Hardcover)

"Do we still know how to read a novel?" John Sutherland, Chairman of the 2005 Booker Prize Committee, asks. His disheartened answer is an unequivocal, "No." But Sutherland has not given up hope. With acerbic wit and intellect, he traces the history of what it used to mean to be well-read and tells readers what it still means today. Using this delightful book as a means to an end, he reminds readers how the delicate charms of fiction can be at once wonderful and inspired and infuriating.
            On one level this is a book about novels: how they work, what they're about, what makes them good or bad, and how to talk about them. At a deeper level, this is a book in which one of the most intimate tête-à-têtes is described--one in which a reader meets a novel. Will a great love affair begin? Will the rendezvous end in disappointment? Who can say? In order for the relationship to take its appropriate course all the details must be clearly acknowledged and understood for their complexities: plot, point of view, character, style, pace, first and last sentences, and even beauty.
            Still, Sutherland knows a true understanding of fiction is more than a flirtation with text and style--it is a business. Taking his readers on a trip to the bookshop, he helps them judge a book by its cover based on design and color, wondering aloud what genre might be best, even going so far as to analyze one of the latest American bestsellers to further help the buying reader choose the novel that is right for him or her.
            In a book that is as wry and humorous as it is learned and opinionated, John Sutherland tells you everything you always wanted to know about how to read fiction better than you do now (but, were afraid to ask).

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:38 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

So many novels, so little time! How do you choose? This book explores how novels work, what they are about, what makes them good or bad and how to talk about them to kindred spirits.

(summary from another edition)

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