Spent a very interesting hour in the London Review Bookshop in London this evening hearing Prof John Sutherland, author of How to Read a novel, telling us that really his advice was all about how to pick a novel and how to read it was something best left to the individual.
The main points of his argument were that the way to choose a book was more difficult than in the past because of the sheer volume of books coming out but was made easier by the following things:
* Bookshops because of the large choices they carried and the ability they offered for browsing
* Dust jackets, which could provide valuable information about a book
* The blurb, which is often written by the author, that is in his own description “like the cheese on the mousetrap”
* Page 69, using a technique that is not his own but is useful, he said that by picking up a novel and reading page 69 it would give a flavour, like listening to a couple of bars of a song on the radio would and help the reader choose if it was worth reading more
In a nutshell that was his main advice about choosing a book. He added that the restriction he argued on reading was not so much money but time and those people who were serious about reading had to make an investment of time.
The other things he said that stood out included a comment on the impact of the second hand book market, with the note that it was having an impact on academic course because books of years gone by were now back in circulation thanks to the likes of eBay and Amazon. “Second hand used to be the weak arm of the book trade now even books that are out of print do not go out of circulation.”
Another point was that a novel still has the power to do things that other forms of discourse are failing to and pointed to novels that have taken on class and sexual issues.
“The novel is doing something that journalism can’t, it is maybe something sociology can do but it doesn’t have the reach as large as a novel can.”
His final point was that the relationship between writer and reader is changing from master and slaves to something more equal because of:
Fan fiction sites
One glaring omission on that list is of course literary bloggers and the increasing discourse that is going on in cyberspace. That should have been on the list because it is growing as an area.
My personal thoughts are that it is obvious that book jackets and blurb help choose a book but it is still so subjective about what makes a great novel and to get people like me who stick with the classics to move to current fiction is going to take a lot more than a fancy picture because as Sutherland said we only have so much time and I sure don’t want to waste it on another Da Vinci Code type offering.