I have a weakness for books about books- how to read them, the history of them, how they’re made or collected, the crazy people that would risk their lives or livelihoods for them. This one is a bit odd, in that it isn’t really about reading novels in any lit-crit or historical sense, but about how to choose what novels to read when we are inundated with so many choices. If you need an idea of the tone of the book, I’ll just say that the blurb on the back of the book was written by the author himself, and discusses how to write a blurb.
It’s always a bit strange to read books that discuss publishing in the earliest years of the new millennium; we were (are) flooded with choices, but those choices have expanded even further in the eight or so years since How to Read a Novel was published, thanks to technology and the advent of large-scale self-publishing platforms. His analysis of electronic reading and its potential to influence (or not) the world of 2006-era publishing is kind of hilarious now; this book was barely twelve months ahead of the release of Amazon’s first generation Kindle, which rendered some of Sutherland’s pronouncements obsolete rather quickly. Digital reading devices and smart phones didn’t change the game overnight, but in hindsight it kind of feels like they did, and it is both anthropologically interesting- and entertaining- to see otherwise savvy critics get their predictions so very wrong.
This can be read as a serious (though cursory) guide- something to help you find your way through all of the overwhelming options we have available. But I don’t think it was intended that way, and I certainly didn’t read it very seriously. I don’t think anyone really interested in reading would need a guided tour through the world of literary marketing, and anyone who is NOT a serious reader (serious as in dedicated, not as in “serious” literature) would bother to read a book about books. I found the book interesting in many places, like when Sutherland discusses author reactions/feuds surrounding literary awards, or going a little inside-baseball on how bestseller lists and endorsements work. He teaches us how arbitrary it all is in the end; books rarely find their readers in the ways publishers think they will, and awards may boost sales but they never guarantee longevity. Maybe that’s why I found it more funny than useful- it’s all one big joke on the business of publishing. Readers have always known how to find what we need, even if we feel a little overwhelmed by the options.
Cross-posted at Goodreads: How to Read a Novel