- How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide
John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide does not, ironically, have an accurately descriptive title. How to Read a Novel would be more aptly titled How to Choose a Novel since the book largely describes in entertaining fashion how to find books in this day of information overload. (In chapter one, Sutherland presents the alternative titles of Reading in an Age of Plenty and Reading through the Avalanche.) In short chapters using easy-to-read prose, Sutherland, committee chair of the 2005 Man Booker Prize, offers advice that includes opening books to page 69 to see if they grab attention and analyzing titles though he appropriately points out that they can be unreliable.
While Sutherland sparingly invokes literary theory in easily understood terms, his underlying theoretical assumption appears to be reader response as he begins the book by arguing that each reader responds to a text differently and by describing the reading process as interactive. He also believes reading to be self-defining, solitary, and private, which explains in part the book's (until recently) durable form. Recognizing Sutherland's theoretical approach provides insight, but Sutherland writes more for a general audience, giving, for example, a "four-minute history" of the novel where he explains the material conditions necessary for its genesis and describes those conditions in the eighteenth century in slightly over four pages.
After a bit of theory and history, Sutherland jumps in with practical advice: Remember that the dust jacket can be descriptive but is essentially an advertisement. Rely less on online purchasing so as to browse shelves in a bookstore. "Know your [End Page 139] taste" (59). Look at bestseller lists and read reviews but remember that reviews and reviewers are fallible. (Sutherland reviews for The New York Times and London Review of Books.) Look at the title page paying attention to the copyright date. Buy the hardback if it is affordable. Keep in mind that book prizes have their politics, too. Sutherland makes the case for the importance of fiction, noting that novels do not have to stick with the facts and can explore controversial issues such as race; he analyzes Philip Roth's The Human Stain complete with spoiler alert. He also points to the responsibility of and payoff for the reader. One does not need to know every historical fact of the time period to appreciate Pride and Prejudice, but it helps to know something of Austen's culture.
How to Read a Novel is enjoyable but largely pragmatic. It brings together much good advice but nothing astonishing. Sutherland acknowledges his love of and expertise in nineteenth-century literature, and one might argue that at times the book feels a bit Dickensian, offering digressions that surely interest but take away from the flow of the argument. Sutherland's book works as a casual, fun how-to, but, overall, it does not contribute original scholarship about the novel. [End Page 140]