How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland is more aptly named How to Choose a Novel, as this non-fiction exploration is more about selecting novels than reading them. This is a very quick read and well worth it if you are interested in fast facts about publishing and tips about selecting novels from the overwhelming thousands that get published every week.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Sutherland’s success in putting today’s reading experience in the context of past and future reading experiences. For a nice counterpoint to today’s readers, Sutherland presents Samuel Johnson, the great critic who was able to say, albeit with a justified but very puffed up chest, that he had ‘read all the books that have been written.’ In the 1700s, that was absolutely possible. There were perhaps 2,000 books in the published canon. Today, that number of books comes out every month. The amount of books available is staggering and very daunting. I often become overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy when I realize the number of books there are to read. I have done myself a favor and have (mostly) cut out ‘trash’ to make room for books that are actually interesting and not merely eye candy, but even with this boundary, there are myriads of titles that I pass up every time I select books; and there is no end in sight. There will be thousands more books on the shelves by next year and thousands more the year after that.
The form of books are unlikely to change, too, as Sutherland, gratifyingly, explains. (I worry about books going digital. I’m afraid I would have to take up a new hobby. My eyes can barely stand this.) Companies have tried to sell readers on reading from a computer, but they have been unable to do so. Readers like taking a book from a shelf, flipping the pages, writing some marginalia, and sticking it in a bag or pocket. Computers just aren’t this versatile.
Sutherland’s history of the novel and information about publishing is the most successful aspect of his book. The rest, the explanation of Bret Easton Ellis’ autofiction, maybe, Lunar Park, for example, is a low point; this might be, though, because I don’t know why ANYONE would read Bret Easton Ellis. I had a very traumatizing run-in with American Psycho in college and learned a valuable lesson. The bitterness over On Beauty losing the 2005 Man Booker to The Sea is heavy-handed and distracting. Though, the insights into how certain prizes, Pulitzer, Man Booker, Orange and Whitbread Prizes, move books but other prizes don’t was very interesting. I, for one, am a total sucker for the Man Booker.
As Sutherland makes clear, and with which I agree, reading is a tremendously expanding, fulfilling, and thought provoking exercise. There are many great books out there, regardless of which types of books you prefer, and it is useful to think a little about how best to sort through the paper piles to find them. If you are really at a loss, Sutherland says, do the page 69 test: if you like what you read on page 69, then you will probably like the entire book. Sounds easy enough to me.