Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose is a tutorial on one approach to ‘close reading’, intended to help aspiring writers learn from great writers and great writing. For those of us who are not aspiring writers, the book provides alternative ways of reading and thinking about what we’ve read.
Each chapter considers one aspect of writing, from word choice, to sentences, paragraphs, dialogue, details, gestures, and concludes with an extended essay on what can be learned from Chekhov, a writer that Prose considers to be an exemplar of the writer’s craft. The book is pedagogical, reflecting Prose’s experience as a teacher of writing and literature. She offers encouragement to the would-be writer, and emphasizes that although she offers many ‘rules’, the writers she uses in her examples very often break those rules to achieve particular artistic purposes.
The central idea of the book is the importance of detail. The big things, plot, ideas, Vision (capital V) don’t matter as much as the details: the small gesture that sets the tone for a scene, the detail of clothing that indicates social class or era or character. Such details require careful observation (vision with small v) on the part of both the writer and the reader.
Prose provides an appendix with an extensive reading list of books by the authors that she cites as examples (and others, I think, unless I simply missed some of the references).
If you haven’t read anything by Francine Prose you are missing out. I’ve read ‘Gluttony’, part of the Oxford/NYU Seven Deadly Sins series, ‘Household Saints’, the novel she is most well known for, and ‘The Blue Angel’, an updated take on the original 1930s era German film.