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Reading Like a Writer

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).

Reading Like a Writer is helpful even when it isn't - can't be - convincing. I'm talking about the case of Philip Roth. Like everybody, I've read Portnoy's Complaint, but that's it. Nothing else that I've come across in these many years has seemed at all appealing, and the excerpt from Sabbath's Theatre that appeared in The New Yorker shortly before the book came out really disgusted me. If there is one thing I don't want to read about, it is other people's masturbation. There is no such thing as "the variety of sexual experience" - there is only your sexual experience. So when Mickey Sabbath got down to it, I wanted to leave the room - or, in this case, the graveyard. And I have never forgiven Roth for abusing my confidence with that scene. I was irritated when Ms Prose help up a paragraph from American Pastoral for admiration, because admiration-for-Roth is for me one of the incontestable signs of our civilization's decline. To me, the paragraph was simply noisy, pushy. A few chapters later, though, I found out what this meant, this response of mine.

I had always assumed that I was alone in having discerned that the identity of the listener was a more vexing problem than the voice of the storyteller until I heard a writer say that what enabled him to write a novel from the point of view of a rather complicated middle-aged woman was by pretending that she was telling her story to a close male friend, and that he, the writer, was that friend. What had made the whole thing possible, he added, was that he was fortunate enough to have had several wives, a few daughters, and a host of female friends, all of whom spoke to him that directly.

What my Roth problem comes down to is simply this: I can't stand the person who is telling his story to Roth. Thanks to some fatality, Mr Roth merely excites my distaste, and the experience stops right there. Philip Roth has terrible manners, and not much else to make up for them. In short, it's very personal.

If I were to write a book such as this, I would just omit any mention of Philip Roth - just as Francine Prose omits mention of Edith Wharton and Jane Smiley, and, on the whole, prefers American writers to British ones. (I don't.) The wonderful thing about Reading Like a Writer is that Ms Prose does not spend any time on writing that she doesn't like. Never have I held such a positive book of criticism in my hands.

Come on, now; you don't want me to revert to CAPS again, do you? (September 2006)

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