Extract: ‘What to Read and Why’ by Francine Prose

In an age defined by hyper-connectivity and constant stimulation, Francine Prose makes a compelling case for the solitary act of reading and the great enjoyment it brings. Written with her sharp critical analysis, wit, and enthusiasm, What to Read and Why is a celebration of literature that will give readers a new appreciation for the power and beauty of the written word.

Extract from What to Read and Why by Francine Prose

Reading is among the most private, the most solitary things that we can do. A book is a kind of refuge to which we can go for the assurance that, as long as we are reading, we can leave the worries and cares of our everyday lives behind us and enter, however briefly, another reality, populated by other lives, a world distant in time and place from our own, or else reflective of the present moment in ways that may help us see that moment more clearly. Anyone who reads can choose to enter (or not enter) the portal that admits us to the invented or observed world that the author has created.

I’ve often thought that one reason I became such an early and passionate reader was that, when I was a child, reading was a way of creating a bubble I could inhabit, a dreamworld at once separate from, and part of, the real one. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a kind, loving family. But like most children, I think, I wanted to maintain a certain distance from my parents: a buffer zone between myself and the adults. It was helpful that my parents liked the fact that I was a reader, that they approved of and encouraged my secret means of transportation out of the daily reality in which I lived together with them—and into the parallel reality tha t books offered. I was only pretending to be a little girl growing up in Brooklyn, when in fact I was a privileged child in London, guided by Mary Poppins through a series of marvelous adventures. I could manage a convincing impersonation of an ordinary fourth-grader, but actually I was a pirate girl in Norway, best friends with Pippi Longstocking, well acquainted with her playful pet monkey and her obedient horse.

I loved books of Greek myths, of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, and novels (many of them British) for children featuring some element of magic and the fantastic. When I was in the eighth grade, I spent most of a family cross-country trip reading and rereading a dog-eared paperback copy of Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen, a writer who interests me now mostly because I can so clearly see what fascinated me about her work then. With a clarity and transparency that few things provide, least of all photographs and childhood diaries, her fanciful stories enable me to see what I was like—how I thought—as a girl. I can still recall my favorite passage, which I had nearly memorized, because I believed it to contain the most profoundly romantic, the most noble and poetic, the most stirring view of the relations between men and women—a subject about which I knew nothing, or less than nothing, at the time.

The passage comes from a story entitled “The Roads Round Pisa.” Augustus, a Danish count, is traveling in Italy, where he meets a young woman disguised as a boy. He admires her confidence and forthrightness, and he realizes that he has, all his life, been looking for such a woman. Their flirtation culminates in the following conversation, heavy with suggestion as it delicately euphemizes and maneuvers its way around its real subject, which is sex:

“Now God,” she said, “when he created Adam and Eve . . . arranged it so that man takes, in these matters, the part of a guest, and woman that of a hostess. Therefore man takes love lightly, for the honor and dignity of his house is not involved therein. And you can also, surely, be a guest to many people to whom you would never want to be a host. Now, tell me, Count, what does a guest want?”

“I believe,” said Augustus . . . , “that if we do, as I think we ought to here, leave out the crude guest, who comes to be regaled, takes what he can get and goes away, a guest wants first of all to be diverted, to get out of his daily monotony or worry. Secondly the decent guest wants to shine, to expand himself and impress his own personality upon his surroundings. And thirdly, perhaps, he wants to find some justification for his existence altogether. But since you put it so charmingly, Signora, please tell me now: What does the hostess want?”

“The hostess,” said the young lady, “wants to be thanked.”

The hostess wants to be thanked? What does that even mean? Is that—to answer Freud’s question—what women want? A polite expression of gratitude? What about pleasure, kindness, loyalty, respect . . . ?

And yet, decades later, I can see how this poetic discussion of the erotic, with only the most vague and delicate suggestion of the mechanics of sex, would have appealed to me at thirteen. How I longed to meet a man someday who would court me with language only a few steps removed from that of the medieval troubadours; how divine it would be to experience a seduction that would verge so closely on poetry. And how I wanted to be the sort of young woman who could travel on her own, charm a man with my courage and independence, and come up with the perfect punch line to answer his mannerly disquisition on what the sexes desire from each other.

I can still see the charm in the passage, even though it seems quaint, artificial, hopelessly old-fashioned. What’s more important is that reading it functions, for me, like a kind of time machine, transporting me to the back seat of our family car, crossing the Arizona desert, being urged to just look at the Grand Canyon while I was somewhere else: near Pisa, in 1823, listening to a man and woman have the type of conversation that I hoped to have someday with a handsome (and preferably aristocratic) stranger.

All of which seems to suggest: reading is not exactly like being alone. We are alone with the book we are reading, but we are also in the more ethereal company of the author and the characters that author has created. There I was in the car, with my parents in the front seat, my younger brother beside me, and Isak Dinesen, Count Augustus, and the brave little cross-dresser all floating around in my consciousness.

We may find ourselves surrounded by dozens, even hundreds, of imaginary people, or deep inside the mind of the man or woman whom the narrator has designated to stand at the center of the action. We can close the book and carry these characters around with us, much the way a child can transport any number of imaginary friends from place to place. And because they are imaginary, we can always stop reading without hurting their feelings, a transaction far less complicated than most of our dealings with flesh-and- blood human beings.

Lately it’s been noted that this privacy has been at least partly compromised when we read on electronic devices that are able to monitor how much of a book we read, where we stop, and what we reread. It’s disconcerting to think about, and yet (especially if we are as engrossed in a book as we wish to be) it’s possible to forget about these invisible watchers, who at least aren’t talking on—or checking—their phones. And of course we can always read a “physical book,” which will never disclose the secrets of our reading habits.

Reading and writing are solitary activities, and yet there is a social component that comes into play when we tell someone else about what we have read. An additional pleasure of reading is thatyou can urge and sometimes even persuade people you know and care about, and even people you don’t know, to read the book you’ve just finished and admired—and that you think they would like, too. We can talk about books to our friends, our colleagues, our students. We can form and enjoy communities that we wouldn’t have otherwise had. Read Proust and you have something in common with other readers of Proust: not only the thrill of experiencing a marvelous and complex work of art, but the fact that you and those others now have, as your mutual acquaintances, his enormous cast of characters. You can gossip about people you know in common. Can you believe what happens to the Baron de Charlus by the end of the novel?

Almost twenty years ago, the novelists Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard put together an anthology entitled You’ve Got to Read This, to which a group of writers contributed an introduction to a favorite short story of their own choosing. (I wrote about Isaac Babel’s “Guy de Maupassant.”) I’ve always thought that every book about reading and about books should be called You’ve Got to Read This. In fact, I might have called this book that had the wonderful Hansen-Shepard anthology not already been sitting on a bookshelf in the study in which I am writing this. I’ve also thought that “You’ve got to read this” should be the first line of every positive book review. The essay about Roberto Bolaño’s great novel 2666, first printed in Harper’s magazine and included here, begins with a description of that impulse, of the desire to say just that, to direct magazine readers toward a great novel.

I’ve always been delighted when an editor asked me to write an introduction to a classic that is being reissued in a spiffy new edition with a stylish, handsome new cover. Because what I am doing, basically, is saying: You’ve got to read this—and here’s why. I feel the same way about certain book reviews that, to me, are a way of telling people—strangers— about something terrific I think they should read. Drop everything. Start reading. Now.

Some of the essays collected here are introductions to republished classics. Others are reviews of books that I particularly admired and enjoyed. Mixed in are a few essays that attempt to grapple with the social and political conditions that inform our reading habits and the judgments we make about books. Others (“On Clarity”) address problems that beginning writers may find themselves facing. Still others are less about reading in specific than about art in general, but have so much to do with what I think about literature that I have chosen to include them. It’s why I decided to put “Ten Things That Art Can Do” at the beginning of the book; in my view, the ideas, thoughts, and observations in that essay inform everything else.

The essays gathered in this volume contain reading suggestions and imprecations, records of enthusiasms, pieces that start with particular books and move toward the larger subject of how and what and why we read: why books can transport and entertain and teach us, why books can give us pleasure and make us think. Ultimately, what I am writing about here are the reasons why we continue to read great books, and why we continue to care.

What to Read and Why by Francine ProseKeep reading: What to Read and Why by Francine Prose

In this brilliant collection, the follow-up to her New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer, the distinguished novelist, literary critic, and essayist celebrates the pleasures of reading and pays homage to the works and writers she admires above all others, from Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to Jennifer Egan and Roberto Bolaño.

In an age defined by hyper-connectivity and constant stimulation, Francine Prose makes a compelling case for the solitary act of reading and the great enjoyment it brings. Inspiring and illuminating, What to Read and Why includes selections culled from Prose’s previous essays, reviews, and introductions, combined with new, never-before-published pieces that focus on her favorite works of fiction and nonfiction, on works by masters of the short story, and even on books by photographers like Diane Arbus.

Prose considers why the works of literary masters such as Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Jane Austen have endured, and shares intriguing insights about modern authors whose words stimulate our minds and enlarge our lives, including Roberto Bolaño, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jennifer Egan, and Mohsin Hamid. Prose implores us to read Mavis Gallant for her marvelously rich and compact sentences, and her meticulously rendered characters who reveal our flawed and complex human nature; Edward St. Aubyn for his elegance and sophisticated humor; and Mark Strand for his gift for depicting unlikely transformations. Here, too, are original pieces in which Prose explores the craft of writing: “On Clarity” and “What Makes a Short Story.”

Written with her sharp critical analysis, wit, and enthusiasm, What to Read and Why is a celebration of literature that will give readers a new appreciation for the power and beauty of the written word.

Posted on July 18, 2018 by

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"Extract: ‘What to Read and Why’ by Francine Prose"

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