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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Monday, February 11, 2008 12:43 pm
How to Read Books
Posted by: Keir Graff

Or should that be “how-to-read books”? In the Independent, D. J. Taylor’s review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works mentions the “very considerable critical sub-genre: the literary user’s manual.” Which includes:

How to Read a Novel, by John Sutherland (2006)

How Novels Work, by John Mullan (2006)

Fifty-Two Ways to Read a Poem, by Ruth Padel (2002)

Aspects of the Novel, by E. M. Forster (1927)

Not to mention:

Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose (2006)

Reading Comics, by Douglas Wolk (2007)

On the how-to-review-a-book front, would-be reviewers should take note of Taylor’s first paragraph, which certainly made me want to read the rest of his review:

Whatever one may think about James Wood’s constant ejaculations, his ceremonious name-dropping (“W G Sebald once said to me…”) and his lecture-hall mannerisms – more of these in a moment – he really is an A-grade exponent of what university syllabi used to call “practical criticism”. Some of the best bits of this brief but luminous primer – and they are very good indeed – come when Wood strips the engine of some fabled fictional juggernaut down to its component parts with the aim of establishing just how a piece of prose works to bring off its effects, the way in which, as he puts it, a novel “teaches us how to read its narrator”.


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