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How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide 1st Edition

9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0312359881
ISBN-10: 0312359888
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

With the literary forest growing by 10,000 novels per year, readers have long needed the kind of map Sutherland provides here. Some of the guidance he offers is cautionary: warnings against the snares in deceptive covers, misleading reviews, and best-selling groupthink. But Sutherland equips readers for the tasks of actually selecting a novel, understanding its text, and tracing the connections linking fiction to the real world around it. Readers thus learn how to negotiate the boundaries between various fictional genres, how to tease interpretive insights out of a book's dedication, and how to recognize the allusions tying one fictional narrative to others. But readers will thank Sutherland most for heightening their appreciation for a literary form through which bold writers confront bigotry, expose corruption, and illuminate history. It is truly an exceptional tutorial that opens a path into the politics in le Carre's taut plotting, the artistry of Flaubert's subtle portraiture, and the metaphysics of Dostoevsky's probing psychology. A key for unlocking an entire library. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


"How to Read a Novel is a lighthearted, often funny book. And oddly calming. There may not be time to read everything, but at least there is some hope of doing it well."--The Los Angeles Times
"It's ridiculously fun reading for book lovers."--The Tampa Tribune
"A quick and lively view of the novel that mixes practical wisdom and theory...highly recommended."--Library Journal

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (October 31, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312359888
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312359881
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,364,573 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By E. Bukowsky HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 7, 2006
Format: Hardcover
John Sutherland's splendid "How to Read a Novel" is a comprehensive guidebook to an art form that is very dear to my librarian's heart. Sutherland's credentials are impressive: he has taught Modern English Literature at University College London, served as the committee chairman for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, and writes for such prestigious publications as The Guardian and The London Review of Books. Sutherland's professed goal is to help overwhelmed book borrowers and purchasers make more informed choices than they would by merely browsing through their local library or bookstore.

The author is nothing if not thorough, covering everything from the history of the novel (its format has changed surprisingly little over time) to its many distinct parts, including the dust jacket, copyright page, title, epigraph, foreword, afterword, opening, conclusion, and even the font. How much stock should we put in blurbs that gushingly declare a suspense novel to be "taut and riveting"? Would we better off slavishly following the advice of some curmudgeonly critic who urges us to avoid the very same novel, since it is hackneyed and melodramatic tripe? Is an intimate knowledge of the cultural background and setting of a book indispensable to its appreciation? What role does genre play in a reader's enjoyment of a particular work of fiction? What factors go into making one book a bestseller and/or a literary prize winner while another is quickly forgotten and dumped into a store's remainder bin? Can movies and novels coexist comfortably or do cinematic adaptations inevitably destroy our enjoyment of the printed work on which the movie is based? Do novels have any lasting value beyond their ability to entertain us for a few hours?
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By K. N. VINE VOICE on May 20, 2009
Format: Paperback
I agree with other reviewers' complaints about Sutherland offering little concrete advice on precisely "how to read a novel." Sutherland starts off well, acknowledging that "In the past getting books, or access to books, was the problem. Today the problem is staggering out from under the book avalanche" (6). One would expect Sutherland to begin with some tips on selecting a few choice novels to read (depending on one's background, novel-reading aims, and "taste") among the plethora of material out there. He doesn't do this, unfortunately, electing instead to pepper his "guide" with numerous anecdotes about authors, publishers, reviewers, and readers. In this regard, *How to Read a Novel* is decidedly NOT a user-friendly book -- Sutherland leaves unanswered the all-important question of "What do you want to get out of reading a novel?" Other critics, such as Mortimer Adler, Harold Bloom, and Thomas Foster, have tackled precisely this question, and I recommend looking at their guides if you're interested in pursuing a structured course of reading in the Information Age.

Nonetheless, despite the book's insufficiencies as a guide, Sutherland does provide an engaging "insider's" view of the modern book trade, from its origins in the nineteenth century to the digital revolution. This shouldn't be surprising, given that Sutherland is a noted authority in book history studies, and particularly in the study of the Anglo-American publishing industries. If you'd like to learn more about the rise of the modern book-form (hardcover and paperback), the origin of bestseller lists, and the politics of book reviewing and book prize-judging, then *How to Read a Novel* is for you, hands down. Sutherland writes in a breezy, conversational style which some readers (seeking advice) will find horribly imprecise. But for those who wish to learn a bit more about modern book publishing from a learned yet informal perspective, Sutherland will indeed prove to be a useful guide to you.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Cully Larson on November 20, 2007
Format: Paperback
This book is absolutely useless. I purchased it with the understanding that the author would enlighten me on how to better read fiction. The problem is that Sutherland never actually does that. He talks A LOT about how many books there are these days and how daunting a task it is to wade through them all. He discusses how choose a book, book titles, book covers, methods of finding books. But, he never writes a bit about how to READ a novel. Well, he may have written a bit about it, but only incidentally--seemingly as a mistake.
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12 of 17 people found the following review helpful By C. Houvener on June 10, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I purchased "How to Read a Novel" believing that it was about how to read a novel. Rather, it's a tedious overview of "the novel's" history. Granted, I'm only 2/3 through, at page 163. But a glance at the upcoming chapter titles enlivens no new anticipation for me. Basically, every chapter can be outlined thus:

- Mention the subject (ex. "Should I write in my book?")

- Talk a little about the history (ex. Marginalia in publishing) - focus on impressing reader by throwing out ever name of every book possible, and insert horrible attempts at parenthetical wit that ruin the endings of so many "must reads."

- Conclude with obvious, no-brainer advice. (ex. "If you want to.")

This book has spoiled the endings of no less than three books that I have sitting on my reading queue shelf, and two that I was planning on buying, but now want to wait on in the hopes that I'll forget the endings he revealed.

Sutherland's writing is often awkward; he is no talent. This book is more like a reader's self indulgent "look what I've read" than an illuminating manual that will enrich your reading life.

That being said, if you are interested in the history of the novel (the physical bound form, reviews, author's choices of titles and pseudonyms, typography, etc) this is a hearty recommendation, if you are willing to cringe your way through a few spoilers that you'll regret. If you are interested in How to Read a Novel - how to enrich your experience and interact with a book - find something else.
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