Sunday, 29 March 2009

How to read a novel

When I was about, oh I don’t know, maybe six or seven, and was living in a commuter village in Yorkshire, a mobile library parked for an hour in the road once a week. A two-tone van: brown and a kind of yellowy beige. I’d choose a novel, take it home, look at the contents page and start reading at the chapter that looked most exciting: The Pirates Attack, or The Bloody Massacre. No one had explained that I was meant to start at page 1, even if the first chapter was boring, and work through to the end.

I guess I worked out the officially approved method fairly soon. One does. (As one learns about sex, and many other things in life: for years the grown-ups tell you nothing, and then comes a time when they assume you know all about it anyway, and meanwhile you just get on with working it out for yourself.) But the approved way isn’t the only way.

A fellow-poet I know reads fiction in bursts: 15 pages one night from maybe somewhere near the middle, then the next week another 40 pages from somewhere nearer the beginning or end. He enters in mid-conversation, leaves when a character exits a room, or a real person happens to enter the room he’s reading in, and may in the end never read the whole book. To me, this seems a fine way of reading: what he takes – on the wing – from the novel is flavour, atmosphere, style (the cast of the author’s mind: intelligence, sensibility, their ways with words), which themselves add up to a universe.

What he misses out on, of course, is story, the shape of the novel. (And doubtless character development and other things too that they tell you about in books called How to Write a Novel.) But story happens not to be what he reads novels for. (Just there are some writers too for whom story, at least in a beginning-middle-ending kind of way, is not that important. B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates was published as loose pages in a box, unbound. Bill Manhire – and he’s not the only one to do this – wrote a novel offering readers alternative directions at the end of each page or section. Ben Marcus. David Markson.)

Browsing, I often dip in and out and read last pages. Writer and reader are consenting partners, both of them free to work out what works best for them.


Ben Markson said...

Haha Charles thats such a coincedence, i have a similar childhood story when it comes to mobile librarys!

Keep up the good blog charles! It puts a ray of light into my mundane days.

David Markson

Nancy A Walker said...

Haha, great part about skipping to the most interesting chapter, I nearly fell of my chair with laughter!
fantastic blog as always