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"Reading Like a Writer"

"If the culture sets up a series of rules that the writer is instructed to observe, reading will show you how these rules have been ignored in the past, and the happy outcome. So let me repeat, once more: literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none."

—€”Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Francine Prose is an advocate of close reading: word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and so on. She talks about the craft of writing by choosing examples from her reading. The chapter "Words," for example, cites Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Alice Munro's "Dulse," and Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, among many other excerpts. Prose, who has taught writing for many years, wants her students (and the rest of us) to read, read, read. "...I've always found that the better the book I'm reading, the smarter I feel, or at least, the more able I am to imagine that I might, someday, become smarter."

The idea of close reading is not new (we have T.S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, et al, to thank for that), but Prose presents her thoughts in a lively and accessible way, with plenty of citations from current literature (Junot Diaz, ZZ Packer, Deborah Eisenberg). Among its many merits, Reading Like a Writer makes a good gateway book: my library list expanded exponentially from all the tempting stories and novels mentioned.


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I loved this book! I’m a big advocate of teaching kids the joys of close reading with appropriate books. I do it with Charlotte’s Web, for instance. Not all books work, but those that do can be amazing to explore this way!

Someone recommended this book to me after I took up writing fiction - I must see if I can get it from Amazon.com with my current gift certificate balance...

Bah humbug, it costs more than I have to spend - I'll have to wait...


Thanks for this post. "Reading Like a Writer" sounds like an excellent book. I think I'll order a copy. Another book that really helped my writing was William Zinsser's "On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction." It's a terrific resource for anyone who wants or has to write.

Michele and Elaine, I think both of you would like this book. Elaine, thanks so much for that other title, too; I'll get it at the library.

It's on my shelf, a book that I've dipped into but haven't yet had the time to truly explore in depth. Atlantic Monthly online has a wonderful interview with Prose that you and your readers might enjoy: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200607u/francine-prose
Happy reading (and writing)!

Thanks for the link, Bruce. That's an interesting interview. After reading Prose's book, I want to go back and read short stories again. She mentions quite a few.

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