Sunday, February 03, 2008


When I was at ALA, I scored a paperback copy of How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster. I've only read a bit of the book thus far, but I can tell you that thus far, the subtitle is not a lie. The chapters are short. They are written conversationally. And they are full of pithy advice and sentences, some of which are oversimplifications, but most of which are useful in any case.

On poetry
Foster's fourth chapter is entitled "If It's Square, It's a Sonnet". He goes on to explain that he doesn't bother teaching much of anything but sonnets (fie on Mr. Foster, fie!), because unless you're a poet or really into poetry, it's kind of pointless. (A thousand times fie! Which would, I suppose, be fie thousand. But I digress.) He notes that a sonnet contains 14 lines, and is usually in iambic pentameter (10 syllables per line), which means that it's roughly as high as it is wide on the page. And then he says this:

I think people who read poems for enjoyment should always read the poem first, without a formal or stylistic care in the world. They should not begin by counting lines, or looking at line endings to find the rhyme scheme, if any, just as I think people should read novels without peeking at the ending: just enjoy the experience. After you've had your first pleasure, though, one of the additional pleasures is seeing how the poet worked that magic on you. There are many ways a poem can charm the reader: choice of images, music of the language, idea content, cleverness or wordplay. And at least some part of the answer, if that magic came in a sonnet, is form.

Huzzah! for Mr. Foster after all. And his further explication of what a sonnet is and what it can accomplish is equally good. He closes his chapter by noting that "Sonnets are . . . short poems that take far more time [to write], because everything has to be perfect, than long ones. We owe it to poets, I think, to notice that they've gone to this trouble, as well as to ourselves, to understand the nature of the thing we're reading. When you start to read a poem, then, look at the shape."

On writing compelling biography or nonfiction

I recently read a 2003 New York Times interview with Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the acclaimed bestseller, Seabiscuit. Here are some bits from the interview. The first bit is her explanation as to how she made the book feel alive and contemporary.

I think the secret to bringing immediacy to any nonfiction story is to ferret out every detail that is there to be found, so that the reader feels like an eyewitness. To do this, I consulted a very broad range of sources, from record books to living witnesses, and everything in between. I studied every film and photograph that I could find, and acquired complete newspapers and magazines from the period and read them cover to cover so I could put myself in the mindset of the men and women of the era. I researched what things cost, what books and movies were popular, what the weather was on a particular day, anything that might help me stand in the shoes of an average American of the Depression era. I was very fortunate in that Seabiscuit was covered very heavily in the press and followed by millions of people, so there was a lot to be found.

Hillenbrand was asked whether any "artful nonfiction" had an influence on her method of storytelling, but her answer really goes to her philosophy of writing nonfiction, and to her use of novelistic devices.

My goal as an historian is to make nonfiction read as smoothly as fiction while adhering very strictly to fact. I read a lot of nonfiction, and have certainly been influenced by such superb historians as Bruce Catton and David McCullough, but the writers who have had the greatest impact on me have been novelists. Michael Shaara's masterpiece "The Killer Angels," an historic novel about Gettysburg, has had a tremendous influence on my writing. Tolstoy has also been a wonderful teacher, namely "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina." Other writers I read over and over again, and try to emulate, include Austen, Wharton, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

On re-reading books (or, perhaps, on writing novels?)

When I find a book I really and truly love, I tend to be a re-reader. I believe that will be the subject of tomorrow's blog post, in fact. For today, I'll stick with quoting a bit from another, far more famous re-reader: Jane Austen, in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, dated Feb. 8-9, 1807, referring to a novel by Sarah Burney:

"We are reading Clarentine, & are surprised to find how foolish it is. I remember liking it much less on a 2d reading than at the 1st & it does not bear a 3d at all. It is full of unnatural conduct & forced difficulties, without striking merit of any kind."

Don't forget that Masterpiece Theatre is airing Miss Austen Regrets at 9 p.m. on most PBS stations tonight. And try not to laugh (as I did) at the name of the lovely younger girl pictured here in the role of Fanny Austen Knight. (And no, Fanny isn't the name I found funny - it's her real name, Imogen Poots, that cracked me up. I am so very immature.)

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