How to Read a Novel

I put the book on the counter in the charity shop, my quid already in hand to pay. The old dear behind the counter – and it is nearly always old dears, or thin-faced yoghurt-knitting women, or the mysteriously never aging Saturday lad in Oxfam – looked at its cover.

How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide
John Sutherland
(Profile, 2007)

She looked up at me.

“It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?” she said.

I can’t remember the last time one of the various people I buy books off of on the Saturday book run (the lazy walk back from lunch in the cafĂ©, calling into every charity shop to look at the books) commented on my choice. Look at my to be read list and you see plenty of books to comment on. “More crime, and yet you’ve not returned that bunch you bought a few months ago yet?” they could say. Or, “Why do you keep buying Margaret Atwood? Why?”. Like me, they might point out that I now have two copies of The West End Horror, simply as I’ve read so many non-canonical Holmes that I can’t remember which ones I’ve got. But no, John Sutherland got singled out.

I muttered something about him being one of the best popular lit-crit writers of the day, including a ramble about Heathcliffe’s fortunes, left the money and fled. I also read the book in two nights.

How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide is a collection of essays (a friend points out they were a series of lectures) that are not on the mechanics of reading. Not on text, subtext, meaning, voice, symbolism etc. There are already books on that. Instead, Sutherland offers the poor bewildered novel reader a guide on how to pick which novels to read. The cover and its myriad enticements is dissected (the cover of the paperback of How to Read a Novel includes the quote “This is a truly important book” which sounds like a ringing endorsement until you spot the quote is from, er, John Sutherland). As are those tightly edited review quotes, the blurb, the cover artwork* and so on. Inside the books’ covers, there’s how to analyse the copyright page, the uses of genre and the intertextuality of most literature. And whether reviews are of any use at all.

Faced with the towering babels of BOGOFs, 3for2s and other promotional gimmickry in bookshops, Sutherland offers a way to pick a few books out of the masses. A few books we, as readers, will enjoy. Not a literary canon, or the literary canon. Not novels we should read so we can compile our meme lists. But books which will bring each individual reader pleasure.

There are some places I disagree with Sutherland. I know the arguments in favour of buying hardbacks, especially with interweb discounts. But, as a lover of pulp fiction, I want paperbacks. I want books whose spines indicate a few weeks shoved in a handbag, or whose splodges of dried water indicate a long read in the bath. I want books that aren’t revered. And hardbacks just don’t offer the same scruffy thrill.

Overall though, so long as you don’t expect it to explain the mechanics of reading, this is every bit as enjoyable as Sutherland’s other books.

Although I’m not sure it helps with my problem: when the charity shops can be treated as loaning libraries, where I pay a quid or two for a paperback and then give it back in a few months – or years – later to be sold to another person, what’s to stop me buying more books for the tbr pile? I’ve been planning to read Mrs de Winter for years as part of my fascination with professional fanfiction, so how can I resist buying it for a quid? How to dodge the lure of second hand books? How, in fact, could I resist buying How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide, by John Sutherland?

*or, design your own penguin cover!

ETA (April 2010): Oh, and I have eventually read Mrs de Winter

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5 Responses to “How to Read a Novel”

  1. trinalin Says:

    Heh heh – I never realized buy one get one free had the initials Bog of(f). :-)

    I’ve actually had pretty good luck in picking out BOGOF & 3 for 2 sale books. Probably the best one ever was Lamb by Christopher Moore, which led me into buying more of his books. (None of ‘em as good as Lamb, IMO, but all enjoyable.)

    Currently, however, I am inhaling Lois McMaster Bujold books at an alarming rate. Making up for 20 years of missing out. (She taught a writing workshop at my HS that I attended as a junior. I bought her first two books (scifi book club 2-in-1) several months later, but never read ‘em. Until this year. Um, damn, I’d been missing out!)

    Oh, and in addition to evil BOGOF & 3-4-2s there are the dreaded Book Clubs. Why the hell do I join ‘em? Why??? (You’re lucky, you can sell books. My house is like a roach motel for books. Books check in but they don’t check out.)

  2. James Says:

    Hi, I found your blog on this new directory of WordPress Blogs at I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, i duno. Anyways, I just clicked it and here I am. Your blog looks good. Have a nice day. James.

  3. Mags Says:

    Trina – I don’t sell ‘em, I give them away. They get redonated to the charity shops. I do have to be ruthless though, and decimate the shelves every few years.

  4. moosifer jones' grouch » Blog Archive » The Blind Assassin Says:

    [...] writer double-bluffing, or was the writer within The Blind Assassin going to surprise her readers? How to Read a Novel talked about the intertextuality of fiction: had I ’solved’ the puzzle merely because I [...]

  5. Mel Menzies Says:

    Hi Mags,

    Came across your blog via Twitter and so much of it resonated with me I thought I must respond. My tbr books line the tops of the linen chest, the kidney dressing table in the spare room, the tallboy in the twins’ (5yo grandchildren) sleepover room, and double line all the previously read books on the shelves in the den.

    Like you, I’m an advocate of the pulp paperback and – in a gross dereliction of childhood restraints – I now fold down corners, scribble in margins and footnote pages, break spines (well, crease them) and generally create a messy environment within the pages of my best friends. (Sad, that, isn’t it?) One of the books I authored was once described, in a review, as a ‘one-bath-book) – a plaudit I took as a compliment.

    I do not, however, have your advantage. No charity book shops near me, nor time to walk to them or the cafe. Since my ‘day job’ is as copyright manager to a music publisher, I’m not sure I could maintain my integrity anyway by infringing the sale and loan Rights on the copyright page of charity shop books. Hey ho! I’d be quite happy for you to post some of yours to me, however. Lending between friends – even Twitter friends – must surely be permissible? ;D

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