A few weeks ago, motivated by an article in the New York Times, I ordered a new book by Francine Prose, titled “Reading Like a Writer.”
In it, the aptly-named Prose dives into her favorite books to uncover breathtaking opening lines, gorgeous sentences, and dazzling paragraphs. She invites readers to slow down and sink into the worlds contained in the arrangement of letters on a page; she reminds us that the pleasure of reading is less about finding out what happens in the end and more about savoring the art of the story.
She writes: “One essential and telling difference between learning from a style manual and learning from literature is that any how-to book will, almost by definition, tell you how not to write…as opposed to learning from literature, which teaches by positive model.”
I have only one beef with the book, and that is that Prose did not include in her list of “Books To Be Read Immediately” the book that I have read more times than I can count, a book that deservedly won a Pulitzer prize, and one that I unstintingly recommend to anyone who asks me: What should I read?
That book is “The Shipping News” by E. Annie Proulx. To open it up is to be submerged into the cold, hardscrabble world of a small Newfoundland town, where a man named Quoyle has come to try and find a peaceful life for himself and his family. To read it slowly is to be astounded at the interaction between the landscape and the characters; to discover aspects of this slow, gentle man that remind you of yourself; to find yourself urgently hoping that he will find a way to be happy.
Consider these four lines from the book, a passage that thrilled me the first time I laid eyes on it, and that I had pinned to above my desk for two years, describing the editor of the newspaper at which Quoyle finds a job:
For the devil had long ago taken a shine to Tert Card. Filled him like a cream horn with itch and irritation. His middle name was X. Face like cottage cheese clawed with a fork.
If I could write like that – even half of the time – even a quarter of the time! – I would consider myself very lucky indeed.
If you haven’t read it, you must. Immediately. Do not even think – not even for a second – of renting the movie instead. Forget that I even mentioned the existence of a movie. Read the book. It will not only move you, but it might even make you a better writer.