Sunday, June 8, 2014
How to be Well Read - John Sutherland
'How to be Well Read. A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities' doesn't disappoint, the admirably succinct preface briefly touches on what's happened to the study of English literature over the last 50 years which comprise Sutherland's career - basically it's more specific and technical than it used to be which widens the gap between the academic reader and the 'common' reader, he also makes the point that in an age of specialisation being well read is no longer an unqualified term of praise in academic circles. Nor is it possible to be well read (if your idea of being well read is to have read just about everything) there are far to many books for any one person, and just reading the classics doesn't cut it, or just literary fiction for that matter. Most appealing, especially in light of the recent dust up about the GCSE syllabus is Sutherland's opinion that literature is a library, not a curriculum or a canon.
In view of all this the title becomes somewhat tongue in cheek, this is not a list of books to tick off - rather it's an A to Z of books from across genres and time. It's also the product of a lifetimes accumulated knowledge and opinion. As an undergraduate (studying history of art) my favourite lecturers were the ones who threw in bits of centuries old scandal and gossip, it helped keep me awake (2 hours in a warm dark room watching slides didn't always make it easy regardless of how interesting the content of the lecture) bought the artist and their work back to life, and created a clubby sort of atmosphere - here was information that less informed viewers knew nothing of, but we had all the pleasure of walking around a gallery as insiders. The same naturally applies to literature and one of the things that make Sutherland's books so much fun to read is that he doesn't hold back on the anecdotes.
What makes this book so much fun is the breadth of material covered (and sometimes the juxtapositions of writers - so Doris Lessing's 'The Fifth Child' precedes 'Fifty Shades of Grey' which is part of the point of the book - if we can no longer hope to be thoroughly well read we can at least read widely. I never managed to read 'Fifty Shades of Grey' I browsed through it a few times in book shops but ended up so annoyed by it's general style that I got no further, I have made the effort to read some of sort of fan fiction that turned into fifty shades and find it troubling for the same reasons that Sutherland gives here. I haven't read Lessing either but I want to now.
It's a dip in and out of book but also a page turner, one synopsis leads to another and then another, you start by looking for books you love, then books you've heard of, and then books you've dismissed. Georgette Heyer's 'Devils Cub' is used to summarise the regency romance in a way that acknowledges both the failings of the genre and (again) how much fun it can be at its best. Sutherland says this is an attempt to think big and companionably, I think he succeeds, it's also a kind of companion to 2011's 'The Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives'. When I got it I assumed that book would be informative but did not expect to use it as often as I have for reference. 'How to be Well Read' will be the same but I'm also loving it for how provocative it is and for Sutherland's companionship (guidance?) through his part of the library, his enthusiasm is infectious.