"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Friday, June 29, 2007

A book about reading

I've been reading Francine Prose's "Reading Like a Writer. A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them."

I'm urging all writers to rush to the book store this instant to buy a copy of the book, which is already on the New York Times Bestseller list, anyway, so maybe this is old news to everyone but myself. No library borrowing for that one : you want to have it on the closest shelf possible. I can't wait to finish it so I can read it again, more slowly this time.

Francine Prose has chapters on words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, and gesture. And she illustrates her thoughts with carefully chosen quotes from authors as diverse as Chekhov, Kafka, John Le Carre, and Raymond Carver. She concludes with a humbling list of books "to be read immediately."

Why humbling ? Well, I did think I was rather well read until I saw that list. Not only have not read all the classics on it, but she even mentions authors whose names I'd never heard or seen before. Of course, one tends to read classics while in school, and having gone to school in France, my list of classics is bound to differ a bit from Francine Prose's - even though she does mention a couple of French authors - Flaubert, Stendhal, with her preferred translators - along with several Russians, Cervantes for Spain, Garcia Lopez Marquez for Latin America, and others... No matter: it's never too late to catch up. So that's my mission for the next few months. Actually, I'll probably re-read even the old classics that I read many years ago, only with a different goal.

At the last SCBWI conference in LA, last summer, Jacqueline Woodson - again ; I did say that she'd made a huge impression on me - said that we should all read our favorite books at least twice. The first time to satisfy our curiosity for the story, and the second time to study the writing, the way the author creates a certain emotion, the plot, etc. This is hard for me. At any given time, I have a good dozen books piling up on my bedside table - and on the floor, when there is no room left on the bedside table, just ask my husband - all waiting to be read. And I do tend to devour books because I want to know what happens in the story, and once I know, well, I just want to read another one. Got to work on that ever growing pile, you know ? It used to be even worse. Novels like Anna Karenina or Gone With the Wind I read in one or two nights when I was in high school. That's how greedy I was, how much in a hurry I was to know what happened... but not only that: novels with heroines like Anna Karenina or Scarlett O'Hara I actually read several times. Not for the writing, nope. Just because I couldn't get enough of these characters. They fascinated me. They lived in a world of passion in Anna Karenina's case, or they were so strong and so irresistible, in the case of Scarlett O'Hara... I so wanted to be like them, to live passionately.

I'm happy to report - or am I? - that I HAVE calmed down considerably. I don't rush through books the way I used to. I do stop to savour beautiful sentences, reading them several times. So, maybe I'm finally ready to revisit old classics and enjoy them in a different way. With my writer's hat on.


Rilla said...

Hey there Katia,
Funny thing, Christopher gave me that book for Christmas! I need to sit down and read it don't I? Well you've inspired me to do it. The deal was that when he gave it to me I'd just finished 'On Writing' by Stephen King and wasn't quite ready to read another writing book. Now I am.
I was such a voracious reader as a kid, I used to hide my books inside my text books. No wonder my homework never got done. And of course, under the blanket or in the bathroom or under the school desk lid were great hiding places as well. And when we had to buy textbooks for the new year, the literature ones got read before school started sometimes. I've slowed down too. My excuse is that I spend so much of the day reading my own writing and those of my fellow blogging peeps as well of course that I don't have too much time for too much else. But all that needs to change. It had better, I'm getting a whole pile load of books from amazon anyday now and did I mention Barnes and Noble has a huge summer sale on?
Oops gotta go ;)

Katia Novet Saint-Lot said...

Rilla, I did all these things, too. I read everywhere. EXCEPT in cars, which I continue to find exasperating : to this day, I can't read in a moving machine - except trains, sometimes, but not always, and planes - because I get sick. What a waste of perfectly good reading time.

Rilla said...

How funny, my mom never let me read in a moving car, and the habit's stuck. Trains yes, planes yes, but cars...there's too much to see out the window anyway and besides, I'm lousy at balancing a book on the steering wheel ;)

Katia Novet Saint-Lot said...

She probably knew what you'd end up doing... As for there being too much to see out the window, that's certainly true in India. That said, I do like to let my mind wander while watching the world go by outside the car window. But after a while, especially if you're going through Suburban America or on the freeway in Europe, it gets really boring. Reminds me of an anecdote: on our first trip with my not-yet-husband, we had an argument because we drove days throughout Spain and he couldn't understand how I could just spend hours without saying a word. He wanted me to talk to him, or rather, he wanted us to talk to each other. I was really taken aback. :)

Rilla said...

That's so funny, Katia. When Daddy would come to pick me up from boarding school he'd be so excited. I was too of course, so he couldn't figure out why I spent the entire 12-hr train journey staring out the window in utter silence.

Katia Novet Saint-Lot said...

Yes, that is funny, Rilla. To this day, I need so much silence. I mean, I need it the way I need food. Actually, I easily forget about eating if I'm absorbed in a book or in my writing, but even if I want to, my mind - and sanity - never let me forget how much I need silence. Go explain that to two rambunctious and hyperenergetic little girls. Or my equally rambunctious and hyperenergetic husband for that matter. No use. I've tried. They hear me, they keep quiet two mns, maybe even as long as 5 mns, and then, they forget. :)

PaulaKayMac said...

Hi Katia,

This book is my all time favorite book for writers!!!


Katia said...

Hey, Paula. Yes, it's a great, great book. Actually, it's been a long time since I first read it. Should get it out again :) Thanks for visiting.