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What to Read and Why

Review

What to Read and Why

I would love to have been a fly on the wall, overhearing thoughts that led to the choice of WHAT TO READ AND WHY as the title for Francine Prose’s latest collection of literary essays.

At first glance, the words seem rather pedantic, cold and even a little bossy. Seriously, what kind of adult reader might pause to pick this one off the shelf? Actually, several kinds, if my own experience has any merit.

Perhaps someone lacking confidence in their understanding of literature and wanting to be told what to do (at times, that’s me all over); maybe someone who likes to challenge an expert against their own knowledge (occasionally me); or someone whose curiosity won’t let them walk on by without taking a peek to see where such confident cover words came from (me, just about every day).

This time, being new to Francine Prose, I am firmly and gratefully in the last category. For those who have previously tasted the surprising and often arresting variety of her nearly 30 fiction, nonfiction and young adult works, WHAT TO READ AND WHY will be taken on well-earned trust.

"Regardless of the author, context, technique or plot under discussion, Prose gently but persistently argues for reading any worthwhile writing from a place of mindfulness, respect and peace, even vulnerability."

I found myself completely convinced of that trust after only a few of Prose’s 33 chapters --- an exquisitely curated collection of previously published critical essays, with a couple of new ones added for good measure. Which brings me back to the title.

“What” covers a huge field of literary and even non-literary art, ranging through some three-dozen remarkable individuals spanning well over a century in English-speaking society and beyond.

Some names, such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Louisa May Alcott and Honoré de Balzac, will be instantly familiar whether one took college lit courses or not. Canadians will feel justly recognized with the inclusion of two of our iconic short story geniuses: Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro.

And then there are some two-dozen wonderfully serendipitous choices from the past century to the present day that will open up striking new territories of discovery for even the most diligent reader of contemporary international literature.

Names like Gitta Sereny, Mohsin Hamid, Paul Bowles, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Andrea Canobbio, Mark Strand and Reiner Stach (just a random sampling) become much more than a recommended list for niche audiences. This is where I’d be tempted to change Prose’s title to “Who…” because she has such a deft and artful way of sharing the authors as well as their works, evoking a desire to read them instead of a duty to do so.

Finally, I could also suggest --- thanks entirely to the originality and depth of each essay --- that WHAT TO READ AND WHY could also be about “How…” for the how of reading harmoniously justifies and nourishes the why.

Regardless of the author, context, technique or plot under discussion, Prose gently but persistently argues for reading any worthwhile writing from a place of mindfulness, respect and peace, even vulnerability. Great literature, whether iconic or excitingly unfamiliar, is not a product to be consumed like fast food or superficially touched and then discarded. All too often, we need a humbling reminder of that.

As a result of being told WHAT TO READ AND WHY, I can return to classics by Alcott, Dickens, Shelley or Eliot with a new appreciation and look forward to discovering some new (to me) authors --- not people whose work I should read, but people whose work I now want to read.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on August 3, 2018

What to Read and Why
by Francine Prose