Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Novel Guide to the Novel

How to Read a Novel : A User's Guide was one of my recent impulse purchases from Kinokuniya, but I'm awfully glad that I succumbed.

Written by John Sutherland who sure has the credentials (he's Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London and was the committee chairman for the 2005 Man Booker Prize), the book is not so much about how to appreciate literature, as about how to choose a book in the first place.

The irony is though, I suppose, that he's preaching to the converted. Anyone literate enough to find pleasure in his book must be a pretty convinced reader anyway!

But I quibble not. This was a bookaholics perfect read, entertaining and full of literary minutiae and fancy-thats and stuff I'm itching to blog about in separate posts. Sutherland gives a potted history of the book and the novel in particular, and then runs through the parts of a novel: (e.g. dedication, font, copyright date, dust jacket, title, blurb), before tackling more general aspects such as genre, reviews, films of the book.

Here's a snippet to whet the appetite:
Put William Caxton in HG Wells's time machine and transport him from his busy little stall by Westminster Abbey, 1480, to Oxford Street, London, or Fifth Avenue, New York, in summer 2006. The founder of our British book trade would, like the philosopher William James's newborn babe, find himself in a booming, buzzing mass of confusion. Everything would seem as strange as Mr Wells's chronomobile which transported him here. One thing, however, would be comfortingly familiar to the master printer: the contents of Waterstone's, Borders and Barnes & Noble. Master Caxton might not understand how Mr Wells's time machine, or any other machine, worked. But he would know (roughly) how the Penguin Classic edition of HG Wells's The Time Machine had been manufactured.

The physical book, the master printer would have been overjoyed to discover, had changed hardly a jot. He would even have found his own catalogue leader, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c.1380s-90s), in the Classics section. Some physical aspects of the books on display would strike him as nifty improvements on the 15th-century commodity: dust jackets, indexes, covers (he, of course, sold his wares from his Westminster stall in quires), coated paper, italic print, perfect binding - all worth sticking in the boot of Mr Wells's machine for the trip back. Despite all these peripheral improvements to the book as a book, Master Caxton could, with his 15th-century technology, mock up the same product that the big W is currently pushing on its "3 for 2" tables.

Comforting as Caxton would have found the individual items in the high street bookstore, he would have been overwhelmed by their profusion. Even Caxton's lifetime output of some 18,000 printed pages, regarded as formidable in the late 15th century, represents less than one day's production in 2006. Well into the 1600s the total number of books, new and old, available to the literate Englishman is reckoned to have been around 2,000.

If you could afford them (few could), were literate in old and new languages (few were) and lived a long life (few did), you could take in the lot. And a good life it would have been. Nowadays, books hit the market at the rate of over 2,000 titles a week. Unlike baked beans, loaves of bread or Fuji apples, books, once consumed, do not disappear. Despite political legend, they are extremely hard to burn. Books more properly deserve the label "consumer durables" than refrigerators or cars. Most books look better after 70 years than their owners. Certainly after 100 they do. "Consumer imperishables" might be the more accurate term.

It is, for some reason, harder, psychologically, to throw away a paperback than a magazine that may have cost as much. The internet and eBay have boosted the market for pre-owned, pre-read (that is, second-hand) books. A vast number stay in print on the easily accessible backlist. There are about three million novels in the British Library, which is being enlarged by some 50,000 new and reissued titles every year. The staff there will deliver any one of them to your desk in St Pancras in hours. And since the Library's populist reforms of 2005, restrictions on the acquisition of a reader's ticket have been lifted. For any citizen over the age of 18 the country's major copyright library is liberty hall.

For the reader of novels the question is: where to start? Is there any point in starting, or shaping one's reading experiences? How can one organise a curriculum? Ours is not, like the 1940s, an age of austerity: it is not money - expensive as new hardback novels, quite irrationally, seem - but time that is in short supply. How, then, to find the novels that you do have the time to invest in? As the science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon (the original for Kurt Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout) observed: "Ninety per cent of science fiction is crap. But 90 per cent of everything is crap." How can we identify the 10 per cent, or less, of fiction available that is not crap? And while we are on the subject, is Ted Sturgeon's own work crap or caviare?
You can read the rest of this edited extract here and another (on the questions of copyright and authorship) here.

The book has come in for a fair bit of criticism from the press. Maureen Corrigan of the Washington Post reckons that the target audience for the book is women who belong to book groups:
We know this because Sutherland loses no opportunity to shower book groups with praise far more intoxicating than the wine usually served at their monthly gatherings. ... Most wince-making of all is this loony piece of readerly flattery that Sutherland flings out at the end of Chapter One: "It is, I would maintain, almost as difficult to read a novel well as to write one well."
And Sam Leith in the Telegraph catches some factual errors.

Those reservations apart, it's a guide I'm very pleased to have on my bookshelves!

10 comments:

sympozium said...

Nearly got this last night at the final day of the Kinokuniya sale - opted for John Mullan's "How Novels Work" in the end...

bibliobibuli said...

there were just too many books on that shelf. i had to grab for the nearest temptation and just walk away. let me know how john mullan's book is though ...

sympozium said...

I thought Mullan's book had more...substance... :-)))
But Sutherland's book was rather gossipy and entertaining.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the stuff Mulan discusses is more substantial and literary compared to Sutherland's which is more behind-the-scenes and entertaining. But both books are worth reading.

bibliobibuli said...

*sigh* better go back for it then ...

bibliobibuli said...

here's the amazon link for mullan's book

it's a must-read for sure and i thank you for telling me about it.

sutherland though is developing a more general argument, and though he does refer to specific texts is concerned mainly with how they illustrate aspects of the published book.

ugghhh ... not content with reading books, we have to read books about books

Alex Tang said...

yup, I can see where this Bibliomania addiction is leading us. I too read books about books, collect posters and photos about libraries and book collecting and my idea of interior decoration is wall to wall bookshelves.

Do you think that is any hope for us?

bibliobibuli said...

frankly ... no

Glenda Larke said...

Wall to wall bookshelves, groaning under the weight of books...sigh. My idea of heaven.

However, the idea that reading a book is as hard as writing one? Let me throw something at him, preferably a weighty tome or two. (Now, who would ever guess that I am currently labouring with editorial requests for changes to the latest submitted MS, and that a final, final deadline looms on same...)

bibliobibuli said...

yes, read you last entry. poor glenda.

sutherland does say some pretty stupid things esp. his comment about reviewers