- Hardcover: 208 pages
- Publisher: Columbia University Press (June 24, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0231168586
- ISBN-13: 978-0231168588
- Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,258,587 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Reading Style: A Life in Sentences Hardcover – June 24, 2014
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Davidson is the ideal reader every writer wishes for, who catches every nuance and every sly allusion, who is alive to rhythm and color and orchestration. She does not just read for that ostensibly load-bearing stuff that is labeled 'meaning,' but detects all of the layers of meaning that are conveyed purely by style. Her book is a gift and a deep pleasure, because what makes her such a virtuoso reader is that she is also a first-rate writer. (Luc Sante, author of Low Life)
Charming and erudite. (Publishers Weekly)
Jenny Davidson has the rare gift of being warmly analytical―highly intelligent but never mandarin, authoritative and intimate at the same time. Reading her discussions of writers ranging from Marcel Proust to Wayne Koestenbaum―by way of Jonathan Lethem and George Eliot―is like being in the company of a very clever friend as she unfolds the treasures of her bookshelf: one who enlightens without condescension, and who is eager to share the pleasures of a well-turned sentence while also being able to point out the satisfactions to be found in a bad one. I loved being in her company on the page, and left it inspired by her appetitive example. (Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch)
Consistently insightful into classic (and sometimes not so classic) fiction. (Tyler Cowen Marginal Revolution)
There is much to value here. (Kate Womersley Times Literary Supplement)
[A] delightful new book. (Mark Kingwell World Literatre Today)
This is an ideal resource for those new to the study of literature at the college level. (Choice)
About the Author
Jenny Davidson teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She has published two books on eighteenth-century British literature, including Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century, and four novels. She blogs at Light Reading (jennydavidson.blogspot.com).
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I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I certainly didn't get it. After her bragging about how much she has read and how fast, what I got was a collection of "papers" such as those that are endlessly required of English majors in college, basically pieces of writing that show off one's understanding of a piece of writing--but at the post-grad level, which makes the writing even denser and less rewarding.
True to the required-essay form, Ms. Davidson quotes generously, liberally, vastly. Which would be okay if her observations about the quoted material were worth having, or even comprehensible, but she has the grad student's love of abstract diction, tortured syntax, scholarly jargon and literary name-dropping which may impress some professors but inspires others to yawn or throw books across rooms. (Call me old-fashioned, but I find it natural to recoil from anyone who uses "foreground" or "privilege" as transitive verbs.)
Nevertheless, I struggled through, always hoping that she would somehow bring everything together and let us know what she's all about, only to find at the end that "given the impossibility of offering any kind of a proper conclusion," she ends it without one. And that's the way every chapter was--there never seemed to be much of a point.
To indulge in a little more quoting myself, I think that a couple of passages give very telling clues about the author's real nature and values. Early on, in concluding her negative comments about Updike, Cheever and Munro, she says that the aspect of life that their writing centers on is "woefully narrow, at least in the greater context of political struggle and institutional service and global migration and passionate religious belief or intellectual commitment, to name just a few of the things that make lives interesting." (Wait a second--I think I hear Nabokov laughing.) That sounds like a list of all the things that make people dull and novels dead. And then towards the end of the book: "I have published four novels, but I have become increasingly frustrated with the aspect of fiction that involves making up characters and the things that happen to them; it seems to me fatally artificial, an abuse of my own imaginative powers and an insult to what I see as the underlying purpose of any novel I would write." Oh, dear.
If she hadn't made clear in the course of the book that she really doesn't like literature as much as she likes intellectualizing about it, she does that here. One thing she has definitely made clear is that for a person who's so concerned about style, she doesn't demonstrate much herself. It says something that her list for further reading contains as many books about novels and stories as it does novels and stories themselves. (By the way, while I'm on the subject of appendices, there are no notes for Chapter 6.)
Maybe schools should go back to considering those old standards--plot, character, point of view, etc.--as a way of "getting at" style.
"In the taxonomy of Austen’s style, then, the reporting of a character’s thoughts or speech in a third-person voice often exposes that person’s foibles. A good instance in Emma can be seen in the narrative handling of Mr. Woodhouse’s anxieties concerning the disposition of the wedding cake at the end of chapter 2, and the thoughts of Mr. Woodhouse or Mr. Elton or Harriet Smith may come through very strongly and revealingly at individual moments, almost as though the narrative voice is a radio tuned briefly to the channel of one character’s thoughts and then to another’s. We also see the use of a lightly ironized diction that is not clearly directed toward a specific target. “Not unfrequently, through Emma’s persuasion, [Mr. Woodhouse] had some of the chosen and the best to dine with him” (I.iii.17): the double negative of “Not unfrequently” and that phrase “the chosen and the best” both sound lurkingly satirical, but whose judgment is it? Does Emma use the phrase “the chosen and the best” self-mockingly, or is it the narrator’s mockery of the smallness of the social circles of Hartfield? These questions can’t be answered—yet neither can the sentence be taken as simple denotative description absent all judgment."
The sentence she is parsing is from a larger paragraph and while unfrequently is not a word, the "not infrequently" that Davidson is discussing is a hint of the "style" of the times and I think Davidson is mixing metaphors, alas to her own disadvantage.
"Mr. Woodhouse was fond of society in his own way. He liked very much to have his friends come and see him; and from various united causes, from his long residence at Hartfield, and his good nature, from his fortune, his house, and his daughter, he could command the visits of his own little circle, in a great measure, as he liked. He had not much intercourse with any families beyond that circle; his horror of late hours, and large dinner-parties, made him unfit for any acquaintance but such as would visit him on his own terms. Fortunately for him, Highbury, including Randalls in the same parish, and Donwell Abbey in the parish adjoining, the seat of Mr. Knightley, comprehended many such. Not unfrequently, through Emma's persuasion, he had some of the chosen and the best to dine with him: but evening parties were what he preferred; and, unless he fancied himself at any time unequal to company, there was scarcely an evening in the week in which Emma could not make up a card-table for him.'
Interest precept but I think over her head.
The author lets us know she reads popular literature (Stephen King, Julia Glass, Dick Francis) but the works she chooses to highlight, and thus her own sentences, are dense, chewy, convoluted. (Proust, James, Eliot, Austen, etc.) Also, kindle formatting sucks, so it's hard to tell what awkwardness belongs to the author and what to the software engineer--transitions are sometimes without a colon or line break, mostly without quotes, never italics; the mechanics of reading matter. There is a lovely sensual element to Davidson's writing and reading of texts that implies and exploits a synesthestic approach to reading, empowers literature as experience.
Criticism becomes discernment in Davidson's deft hands, and she does transmit her pleasure in the reading, the works, and the language(s). Very fun, but in no way light reading! Made me want to revisit James, Austen, and Proust. (And I do agree with the other reviewer that the book we were expecting and hoping for would have been better. Somebody please write it.)
Thanks to Columbia UP and netgalley for the e-galley for review.