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How to Read a Book

Reading, says Susan Elderkin, in the Financial Times, has become “a highly stressful business.” The main trouble, it seems, is that there are just too many books. How is one to choose? Elderkin, a novelist and fellow in creative writing says that “the number of books in the world is growing at five times the rate of the human population.”

Apparently the best way to solve this problem is … to read another book. Like one of these:

  • Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance
  • John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide
  • John Mullan, How Novels Work
  • Nick Hornby, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree
  • Nick Rennison, ed., Good Reading Guide

In brief, Mexican critic Zaid psoesthe problem: “Books are published at such a rapid rate that they make us exponentially more ignorant. If a person read a book a day, he would be neglecting to read four thousand others, published the same day. In other words, the books he didn’t read would pile up four thousand times faster than the books he did read, and his ignorance would grow four thousand times faster than his knowledge.”

Sutherland talks about judging books by ther covers, margins, and other design elements. He also proposes applying “the McLuhan test,” which is to read page 69, and buy the book if you like that page. Mullan seems to be a lit crit type, who breaks books down into how they use everything from parenthesis to paragraphs. His book is assembled from newspaper columns, as is Hornby’s, which amounts to a kind of reader’s journal. Hornby writes, “I am not particularly interested in language”; he prefers light books that can be read in one sitting. The Good Reading Guide is “great books” list of 400 titles.

Regrettably, Elderkin’s review doesn’t give a much of a sense of the nature and content of the titles in her roundup, and it doesn’t come close of realizing its premise of addressing the problem of proliferating books proposed by Zaid. If you’ve read any of these books let me know what you think about them.

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1 Comment

  1. I’ve read some of Hornby’s words on the subject, and I can’t say his view really appeals to me. He seems to think reading should be passive and vapid, and should be read only on the surface. I already have tv for that level of entertainment. I prefer to be engaged, and I like to be challenged.

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