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