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.