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Francine Prose on Reading Aright

What is the opposite of "disappointing"? "Satisfactory" won't do - it has a sigh of disappointment built into it. We need a word that means "every bit as good as it ought to be." That would be the word for Francine Prose's indispensable Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Like Them. I don't have much to say, beyond BUY IT NOW. Look, I'll even throw in a link, and I never link to points of sale when I'm writing about books.

If you love reading (not necessarily the same things loving books, but I'll let it pass), then you probably don't have any use for theories about the hidden construction of what you're reading. You're perfectly happy to be a dupe. Reading is a pleasure, and theory is for people who are not particularly fond of reading. But just because you're not deconstructing texts, there's no reason not to pay attention. The term for attention paid is "close reading." Ms Prose describes her first close reading as an adult.

When I was a high school junior, our English teacher assigned us to write a term paper on the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex and King Lear. We were supposed to go through the two tragedies and circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness, and vision, then draw some conclusions on which we would base our final essay.

It all seemed so dull, so mechanical. We felt we were way beyond it. Without this tedious, time-consuming exercise, all of us knew that blindness played a starring role in both dramas.

Still, we liked our English teacher, we wanted to please him. And searching for every relevant word turned out to have an enjoyable treasure hunt aspect, a Where's Waldo detective thrill. Once we started looking for eyes, we found them everywhere, glinting at us, winking from every page.

Long before the blinding of Oedipus and Gloucester, the language of vision and its opposite was preparing us, consciously or unconsciously, for those violent mutilations. It asked us to consider what it meant to be clear-sighted or obtuse, shortsighted or prescient, to heed the signs and warnings, to see or deny what was right in front of one's eyes. Teiresias, Oedipus, Goneril, Kent - all of them could be defined by the sincerity or falseness with which they mused or ranted on the subject of literal or metaphorical blindness.

Reading Like a Writer is a very simple proposition: a collection of close readings of passages that Ms Prose admires, organized by a descending scale of focus, from "Words" and "Sentences" to "Details" and "Gesture," with two summing-up chapters that are delightfully at odds, and a list of "Books to Be Read Immediately." A list, in short, of all the books that Ms Prose has been talking about in the course of Reading Like a Writer.

I can only hope that this book will become a textbook at better schools (well, at every school, if I can dream).

Continue reading about Reading Like a Writer at Portico.

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