At the beginning, I felt reading John Sutherland’s book might be an exercise in hypocrisy. The book is billed as a guide for reading novels in an age when readers are under a deluge of print and bound by the weight of so much bound matter. There was a moment as I began the first page when I questioned the wisdom of reading a book that was telling me to be more circumspect in choosing what I read. Did I really need this pointed out to me as my wife and I climbed into bed under the impending avalanche that is the tower of queued books piled next to us? And why do I use words like “queued” after reading British writers?
The answer to the first question is a resounding, “No. No I don’t.” Fortunately, I understood that it was the wrong question or I may never have accepted the book from St. Martin’s. And I soon found out that Sutherland knows the right questions and is able to deliver serious answers to them with a light-hearted flair. As an American, one might be a bit intimidated by an English literary academic type and decide to avoid this book. I will not be sharing with my seventeen and eighteen year old English students on Monday morning Sutherland’s nearly awe inspiring title of Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature, as any who were still awake when I got to the end of it would be too bored to be impressed anyway. I will be sharing many of the E. L. N. P. M. E. L’s (maybe I’ll just text the title to them in this form) ideas however, as they are often the exact ideas that I try to put into their heads anyway. Plus, Sutherland expresses those ideas in language that even American teens will be able to access.
I knew that I was in the choir when Sutherland preached his second sentence, “In part, it’s an autobiographical exercise.” I agreed instantly with that sentence. All I had to do was figure out what it meant.
You see, the writer was speaking of alternate titles for his book when he wrote the sentence above. But I immediately felt that he was also speaking of the act of reading. For most of us, who will never write an autobiography, what we read becomes “an autobiographical exercise.” Of course, I still didn’t know what that meant. Doggedly, I thought on…
Does it mean that we “write” the autobiography by reading certain books? Perhaps it means that we read literature based on our previous experiences and thus reflect ourselves in what we’ve consumed. We are what we consume, or we consume what we are.
As I thought about consuming, I arrived at another sentence that stood out. Again, Sutherland was discussing reading as an act of self-definition. “One reads, as one dreams, defecates, and masturbates – alone,” said the Professor. My first thought was a contrary, “What if I were to sleepwalk into a scatological circle jerk?”, followed quickly by a general, if not total, assent. Sutherland has a wholly reasonable, balanced, and somewhat transparent approach to choosing and then reading novels. He suggests that it should be a fun and interesting process, but should also be serious, lest it be a waste of time. His discussion describes an active reading experience that deepens and enriches the reader’s life on many levels.
Sutherland has written a book that is often as engrossing as good fiction. He uses several storylines to connect the basic plot points along the bibliophile’s journey. I especially enjoyed the use of a story about the writers Ian McEwan and John Banville told in parts throughout the book.
If at times Sutherland is a bit obvious and overly dramatic (“If, when you’re buying a book, you feel a tender hand on your genitals, the other hand is probably feeling your wallet.”), he is on the whole entertaining and his enthusiasm for the novel as art form, cultural artifact, and social forum make this book worthy of your time.