During the weeks I spend reading Beowulf on the Beach, I was also, much more slowly, making my way through Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francis Prose. (I actually picked them both up in the same library trip.) While not as entertaining as Beowulf on the Beach, it was informative and very readable. Despite the title, you do not need to be an aspiring writer to find it worthwhile; the early chapters especially I found useful as a reader.
Perhaps the most important topic in Prose’s book is the concept of “close reading,” that is, slowing down and paying careful attention to what you are reading, taking in each and every word, not skipping over anything. This is too often directly opposite of the way I read—I am afraid my habit of online skimming has translated over to my book reading—and I find her reminder to slow down important. It is easy to miss important context or hints in the rush to the next scene. This is the one important concept I wish to take from Prose’s book and employ in my reading, even if I manage to forget everything else she says.
The book itself is divided into chapters by topic: “Close Reading,” “Words,” “Sentences,” “Paragraphs,” “Narration,” and so on. Although directed more towards writers than those who are solely readers, Prose’s careful exploration of each topic brought an appreciation to me of the various techniques employed by a capable writer. Interestingly, she never gave a hard set of rules as to how something should be written—for every example she gave, she provided an equally effective counter-example showcasing an opposite technique or philosophy.
Certainly, Reading Like a Writer was not short of examples, from classic novels to modern short stories. In some ways it was fascinating to see the many different approaches to any given topic, for example, the vast array of decisions on where a paragraph should be divided and how that in turn influenced the tone or mood of the story. On the other hand, sometimes I felt a bit as if I was forcing myself through the chapter, as if there was perhaps just one example too many. For a student of writing, however, I could see that this could be a valuable starting point to begin to see displayed the infinite variety of the written language. (This would of course, only be a teaser for reading the actual works themselves.)
The biggest negative I have towards the book was Prose’s list of suggested reading at the end, not because it was there, but because she chose to title it “Books to be Read Immediately.” This, to me, feels presumptuous, especially as there is no explicit acknowledgement, that, as with all other such lists, it can never be more than the opinion of (in this case) one person. True, most, if not all, of the books are generally considered valuable reading. It is the presumption of the tone that I should immediately drop all other plans and pick these up immediately that rankles. Otherwise, I found it a valuable and informative book, one that has already begun to make an impact on the way I approach my reading.