How to be Well Read: A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities by John Sutherland
|How to be Well Read: A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities by John Sutherland|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: A glorious selection of books to tempt you - all considered in witty and elegeant prose. Highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 576||Date: May 2014|
|Publisher: Random House Books|
Being well read is rather like having good manners: it's something that we all aspire to but there's always a nagging doubt that there's something lacking in what we've achieved. That is, of course, why a book with the title How to be Well Read pulled me in so successfully with its promise of being a guide to five hundred great novels and a handful of literary curiosities. Was I going to find that ultimate list of books which I would have to read to ensure that I could think of myself as well read? No - I was going to find something far more useful and interesting.
I found a book which tempted me to read differently and more widely and this is down to the arrangement of the entries. You might expect that the entries would start with the oldest books and work through chronologically to last year's literary prize winners. Failing that you might imagine that authors would be listed alphabetically so that we might compare and contrast the best of Jane Austen before moving on to Paul Auster. But no - both of those approaches would have been too obvious: the entries are listed alphabetically by title. The result is the marvellous randomness of a lucky dip and it's genius.
My mind lit upon Emily Bronte (Haworth is just over the hill from where I sit) and I read through the entry for Wuthering Heights. It was thought-provoking about the exact nature of the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff and some other seemingly unanswerable questions about the text, the most worrying being why we are drawn to Heathcliff, a brute and quite possibly a murderer. I flicked back from Wuthering Heights to the previous entry - Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - which gave me some interesting thoughts on the effects of pain and then I moved forward to The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, which describes the book as a first novel by a young veteran, who served , honourably, in the shabby conflict it chronicles.
The entries are not reviews in the generally accepted sense of the word. Sutherland doesn't worry about spoilers if telling what you might not wish to know before you read the book is pertinent to what he has to say. Had I not read Disgrace by J M Coetzee before I looked at the relevant entry I might have felt that I knew just a little too much about what happened to David Lurie and his daughter, but equally Sutherland's comments about truth and reconciliation in South Africa will take me back to read the book on a different level. The perfect solution is probably to read the book, read the entry and then reread the book.
Being well read doesn't mean having restricted yourself to reading the best of books - sometimes you need to have read the bad to appreciate the good. The entries for Lace by Shirley Conran and The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann are in point here. Pull the other one, Shirley he responds to Conran's protestations about why she published Lace - and he quotes Gore Vidal on Susann. She doesn't write, she types! - and Sutherland then goes on to explain that even this probably overstated her abilities.
I was surprised by how many of the books I had read, worried by how many of the readings dated back to my teens, but unsurprised by the fact that as a reviewer I was perhaps less well read that I would like to have been. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy of the book to the Bookbag.
For a different approach to books you might appreciate Books that Changed the World: The 50 Most Influential Books in Human History by Andrew Taylor. We've also enjoyed John Sutherland's advice on How to Read a Novel.
You can read more book reviews or buy How to be Well Read: A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities by John Sutherland at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy How to be Well Read: A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities by John Sutherland at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.