Close Encounters Of The Word Kind

PROSE This Christmas, I bought my mother-in-law a Smythson ‘Book Notes’ journal: 128 leaves of gilt-edged, pale blue featherweight paper bound in monogrammed navy lambskin, with each double-spread designed to record the Date, Title, Author and Comments of your latest read. Yes, I am a kiss-ass. She makes great eggnog. But I’m also deeply admiring of her diligence in keeping detailed notes and research on everything she reads in preparation for her local book club.

What was the best book that you read this year? It’s a classic festive dinner-table question but one I find almost impossible to answer. While my mother-in-law is able to rattle off long lists of best and worst, with ample context and lucid argument, I stare blankly into space trying to remember a single thing I’ve read other than whatever’s currently in my bag. And while I’d like to blame my lack of elegant stationary, I know that the real culprit is my propensity to gobble novels like Lindor truffles. I usually read compulsively, voraciously, in a glassy trance from which I emerge only faintly aware of what I’ve just experienced, like a compulsive binger who stares around at the empty Pringle pots in surprise.

The answer is quite obviously to read more slowly, more carefully and yes, perhaps even with a scribbled observation or two. But three years of a Literature degree bequeathed me, along with an impressive but hard-to-monetise fluency in Middle English, a decade-long phobia of literary criticism and its concomitant slow, analytical appraisal of text (horrible word). Anyone who has ploughed their way through a curriculum-issue paperback, circling metaphors, highlighting themes and writing things like ‘subjugation of the other!!’ in the margin, will have experienced the depressing reduction of a living, breathing story to, in the words of TS Eliot, “a patient etherised upon a table.” Close reading has all the romance of bowel surgery, and trails a whiff of righteous killjoy akin to pulling the casket from a conjurer’s hands in order to cook his rabbit.

But a recent New Year present-to-self – Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer – has persuaded me to recommit to its joys. Prose is both a working novelist and a university professor, and her witty, down to earth approach reframes close reading as a humble, intimate and joyful art. As she says, “writers say that there are other writers they would read if for no other reason than to marvel at the skill with which they can put together the sort of sentences that move us to read closely, to disassemble and reassemble them, much the way a mechanic might learn about an engine by taking it apart,” and through chapters such as Words; Sentences; Paragraphs; Character and Gesture she encourages us to examine a book’s nuts and bolts while never losing sight of the pleasure of the whole.

Prose’s admirable and rare belief that it is “easier to learn by example then by abstraction” results in parsed extracts from writers as diverse as Jane Austen and Gary Shteyngart, but she also steers clear of excessive nit-pickery, rather pointing our eye in the right direction and letting us intuit how the alchemy works. Of the last two paragraphs of Raymond Carver’s short story, Fat (which you can hear Anne Enright read here):

It is August.

My life is going to change. I feel it.

- she reflects that Carver’s bold structural decision manages to “combine statement and qualification, certainty and doubt” but “in a way that we can no more ‘explain’ than we can summarize the ‘point’ of poetry or analyse how it operates on us.” It is this combination - the clarity of Prose’s observations teamed with her refusal to reduce the results of literature to something mechanistic - which makes her book so good.

In an early chapter, Prose exhorts us to fill a bookshelf by our desk with works by authors who demonstrate mastery in the specific writing skills most pertinent to, or indeed most lacking in, ourselves. It’s an excellent idea, and asking others for recommendations is a great way to build a 2013 reading list – and, sometimes, to be surprised by the acuity of your friends. My fledgling collection includes several novels by Rose Tremain, for the rhythm of her sentences and her exquisite evocation of sense of place; Elizabeth Knox for subtle, glowing imagery; Dorothy Dunnett for dialogue and exposition; Jonathan Franzen and Joshua Ferris for characterisation and point of view; Virginia Woolf for words and, again, sentences; and Dickens for gesture and stage management. I’d love to hear which authors or individuals works you would chose.

I’ve also committed to reading one poem slowly every night before I go to sleep. Poetry is a great training ground for close reading, excavating nuance and surprise from the most simple words and grammatical choices. The anthology Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, edited by Roger Housman, yields both old favourites and surprising gems, all with a focus on reinvigorating the overlooked everyday, and has become something of a personal primer.

As a writer, my work is hugely improving by shifting from an instinctive education-by-osmosis model of reading to a more purposeful and present one. But I’m also noticing that those passages I read with such deep attention cling to my mind like raindrops; their images, meanings and music glistening at unexpected moments, and resonating throughout my day. I’d recommend it. Close reading may give you a serious advantage round the turkey next year.

This article originally appeared on Bookhugger.