John Sutherland’s “How to Read a Novel: A user’s guide” – Book review

Speaking of misleading titles (okay, I’m not yet, but I’m about to), I just want to point out to anyone who’s reading this and grew up with me that the book I’m about to review was not written by our childhood friend John Sutherland, but by some old British guy.

How to Read a NovelHow to Read a Novel by John Sutherland
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The only reason this book gets two stars (instead of one) is that I didn’t actively dislike it. It was easy to read and mildly interesting. I wanted to keep reading. I kept hoping to actually learn “How to Read a Novel.”

The book, or rather the title, is a brilliant example of marketing. As an avid reader, a lover of novels and an English teacher of 21st century teenagers, how could I NOT pick up a book that promises to teach us “how novels work, what they’re about, what makes them good or bad, and how to talk about them with kindred spirits.” Unfortunately, the blurb is pure fabrication. It has nothing at all to do with the book it’s printed on.

How to Read a Novel is a largely useless book wrapped in the most amazingly nerdalicious wrapping in the world. If ever a book is published that actually delivers what the title and blurb claim, I will be “all upons” (to quote Strongbad, which is something everyone should do at least once in their life). John Sutherland‘s book would be more aptly titled, “How to pick a novel” and subtitled, “A book that lists a number of approaches to chosing reading material, but doesn’t give you any practical advice at all”. Of course, I don’t know a single person who would actually pick that book up, let alone get excited about reading it. Whoever thought of the title of this book is a genius is commercial terms. Whoever wrote the blurb (likely Sutherland himself, as he explains in chapter 7 “that they are often written by the authors themselves”) is an outright liar.

Maybe Sutherland had every intention of writing an actual useful book that does everything promised in the cover copy, but he didn’t. He’s not a bad writer. He’s knowledgeable. He has experience in reading and judging books. But he did not write a book that deserves the title, “How to Read a Novel. A User’s Guide.” Incedentally, he is also rather self-important and likes to boast about the books he’s read. I can’t really blame him for that though. I’m the same.

In one word: Disappointing.

View all my reviews

More thoughts:

So that was my review on Goodreads, but there’s more that this book made me think about. As anyone who reads my blog knows, I can go on and on and on and I’m not very concise or always logical in my ramblings. I tried to keep the actual review to a minimum. What follows is more of a response.

  • The book made me think about reading curricula. If anyone ever had control over what books were assigned for children to read each year in schools, over their entire school journey, what would this reading list look like? At it’s core, the concept is repulsive – it would turn even more children off reading than already hate it. But it’s tempting to think about what such a reading list would look like. The author says at age 9, he was assigned a Victorian era children’s book, Masterman Ready by Frederick Marryat, and it led him to a love of Thackeray, especially Vanity Fair. That was in England during WWII. How would it go down in modern day New Zealand? Not well, I think, though I have a notion that it would be lovely to be setting higher expectations for kids who already like reading, so that we don’t end up with ‘top scholars’ who grew up on Goosebumps, Twilight and John Green*.
  • *I’m not saying R.L Stine, Stephenie Meyer and John Green are all bad, or all on the same level, or anything like that, I’m just saying that people who love reading should read more than popular fiction.
  • Sutherland’s section on “The future of fiction” is kind of hilarious. It’s been eleven years since he wrote it. I love books. Like, really really love them. I love physical books. But I do most of my reading on a screen. It hurts my eyes and decreases the quality of my sleep, but I do it anyway. It’s a fact of life. I have no idea what “iCue” is. In another eleven years, it’s likely not many people will know what “Wattpad” is. Or maybe even WordPress. The only accurate prediction one can make about the future of technology is that it will keep changing. Likely faster than ever.
  • I have heard about a book called “How to read literature like a professor.” After the massive let-down that is “How to Read a Novel,” I’m not getting my hopes up, but I’m still going to keep an eye out for it.
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