Musing Monday-Word for Word


This week’s Musing Mondays asks:

When reading do you read every word?  Do you ever skip chapters or skim over parts?


I’ve always been rather proud of myself for resisting the urge to skim through books, even those that aren’t terribly fascinating or particularly well written. Devouring a book too quickly, even for someone who calls herself a Ravenous Reader, is rather unsatisfying in the end, and I always feel slightly guilty adding it to my list of Books Completed if I don’t feel I’ve given it a thorough read.

However, after just a few chapters of Reading Like A Writer,  Francine Prose’s guide to quality reading, I must admit that I’m nothing but a reading hack…at least by Ms. Prose’s standards.  She writes that it’s “essential to slow down and read every word” – and not just read, but digest and analyze and wonder exactly what each word choice is telling us about the greater meaning of the book.   And skimming “just won’t suffice if we hope to extract just one fraction…of what a writer’s words can teach us.”

She then proceeds to a 300 word exegesis of the opening sentence in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor : “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”  Within those eight words, the author has set the tone of the story with the choices she made.  Calling this character “the grandmother,” (as opposed to Grandma or Nana, or any other popular diminutive) depersonalizes her, and identifies her place in the family, as well as elevating her to a somewhat mythic status.  Starting out with this declarative refusal, this “concentrated act of negative will,”  introduces a major theme of the story – the foolishness of attempting to exert ones will in the face of fate or destiny.

It’s fascinating to read Prose’s analysis, truly it is.  But I despair of every making even the smallest dent in my already teetering TBR pile if I were to embark on such an intricate analysis of every sentence in every on of those books.

Of course, Ms. Prose’s book aims to be a guide for the fledgling writer, another way to study the masters and the way they apply their craft.  For words are the writer’s “raw material,” and are used the way a composer uses notes and a painter uses color and brushstroke.  In that sense, the value of “close reading” cannot be denied.


12 thoughts on “Musing Monday-Word for Word

  1. Don’t worry about it, just enjoy! I get distracted by the fact that I often read as a writer, ie noticing the technical aspects of the book and thinking about them. I love it when the book is so good and engrosses me so utterly that I completely lose track of the mechanics. I wish that happened more often.

  2. I think close reading has its place. But reading for the sheer joy of it does too. I find that some material demands close reading, like great literature or philosophy. Other material, not so much. I would never subject what I call my trashy sci-fi novels to a close reading. And even when reading great literature, I think you should read it first for enjoyment. Then if you wish you can go back an reread it more closely.

  3. To quote one of my favorite movie lines (from The Big Chill): “Sometimes you have to just let art flow over you.”

    Close reading has its place, but.

  4. What an interesting subject. I think there is a place for close reading, but I much prefer the story to overwhelm me, as other commentators have said. I often think that Jane Austen wrote for her own pleasure and that of her readers, I wonder if she knew how much she would be analysed and debated and what she would think of it?

  5. Close reading like Prose’s is usually for a second reading – if you want to work more deeply with a book. The first reading ought to be about feelings and passion and wanting to know the outcome. I must say I don’t ever skip, though. I always worry I’ll miss something vital and end up back-tracking just to check!

  6. If I am going to take so much time over each sentence, it has to be because the author’s use of language draws me in and I want to savor the words. Most books just don’t call for this, and I’ll even skim or speed read a bit if I’m loosing interest and want to see how things go a few pages further on (shame on me, I know).

  7. Oh my, I could never read my books that closely or I’d never get through any of them. Occasionally there is a book or short story I wish I had time to read that closely, but like you said, I’d never make a dent on my TBR stack.

  8. Now that’s a pretty fascinating concept — and it makes sense. But I’m with you, Becca. I’d never finish everything if I dug that deeply! (Having said that, some books simply require it — and that’s cool, too!)

  9. I also just finished Francine Prose’s book. I absolutely loved it, but I understand what you mean about being a little daunted now. I could really see this book being used in creative writing classes. She must be a great teacher.

  10. Sounds like a wonderful book — I picked it up at a library book sale in November and I’m excited to read it. I’m sure I am just a reading hack, but I’d like to be better — TBR pile notwithstanding.

  11. I once read that people read different ways. Some people read each word and some people read in glumps. I am a glump reader myself. I do enjoy Francine, however. I took a writing class which used a book she edited – not the one you are talking about. I do agree with one of your commenters – I bet she is a great teacher…

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