How critically do you read a book?

I was recently asked, “Now that you are a writer, do you read books differently?”

The short answer is YES – I am a more critical reader now that I write regularly.

I still read slowly, savouring every word, enjoying the setting, characters, plot and pacing, and being amazed by the writer’s ability to capture and hold my attention, but I also find myself searching the text in more critical ways.

I am currently reading Under the Tuscan Sun – a home in Italy by Frances Mayes and loving every word of it. It was published in 1997, and not surprisingly in 2003, the very successful film was released. I remember enjoying the film, and now I am reading the book and as is most often the case, the book is much better. But I’m a writer now and as I read this book I find myself examining the way it was written and published.

  1. I am a less than skilful editor, but I still find myself doing a line edit as I read, spotting errors that eluded the publication process. e.g.: “…an landowning family…” is an error and an should be a. While I spot these errors, I am a reader and not the editing police and don’t let these small errors spoil the flow of a great read. We all make little mistakes.
  2. I avoid using adverbs when I write as they are usually unnecessary. Many writers agree. Mayes is the queen of the adverb and they are liberally scattered throughout her memoir. She is the exception that proves the rule and they work in her writing.
  3. Mayes weaves hundreds of Italian words and phrases throughout her memoir and does this most effectively. We are introduced to, stranieri – foreigner, Niente – nothing, miliardo – billion, and hundreds more. Each time, she italicises the Italian word and then somehow explains its meaning in the same sentence, e.g. ‘We could hear workers shout “Vipera!” to warn the others of a poisonous snake.’  The insertion of the Italian words adds to the flavour of the book and in no way detracts. I write books and short stories set in Indonesia, and now realise that my writing could be enhanced by the insertion of appropriate Indonesian words. These words are a reminder of the foreign setting and I will now try to include some.
  4. We all love to eat and drink and Mayes allows us to enjoy many vicarious feasts by describing flavours, aromas, and the visual appeal of a host of Italian dishes. She does this so effectively that the reader feels they are there at the table with her. I love Indonesian food and again will weave more of these sensory experiences into my writing to give the reader a sense of place and hopefully the desire to try some different Indonesian food. I know that this can be over-done in a book, but Mayes, gets the balance just right. Maybe I can too.
  5. Adjectives are a lot like adverbs, in that they should not be overused. Flowery sentences where each noun is described by a few adjectives quickly loses the reader. Mayes uses her share of adjectives but this is never over done. What I found even more appealing, was her invention of her own adjectives. “…the Fiat-wide stone streets…” is a perfect example of the way she describes the scene. I read her descriptions and I could see it; I was there.
  6. Mayes attention to describing the ordinary so that it is anything but ordinary amazed me. Here’s just one example.

A woman of about sixty with her daughter and the teenage granddaughter pass by us, strolling, their arms linked, sun on their vibrant faces. We don’t know why light has such a luminous quality. Perhaps the sunflower crops radiate gold from the surrounding fields. The three women look, peaceful, proud, impressively pleased. There should be a gold coin with their faces on it.”

I love this description and it is just one example from hundreds. I felt that I was there watching. My challenge is to write like this. 

  1. Mayes fills her pages with sensory appeal. Sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell are regularly shown and I loved this aspect of the book. While the pages are crammed with examples, below are a couple that really appealed.

When it rains or when the light changes, the facade of the house turns gold, sienna, ocher; a previous scarlet paint job seeps through in rosy spots like a box of crayons left to melt in the sun. 

Across the courtyard a visiting Arab chants his prayers toward dawn, just when I finally can fall asleep. He sounds as though he is gargling with salt water. 

So to answer the question, “Now that you are a writer, do you read books differently?” I sure do. I read critically and also searchingly (excuse the adverbs) to see what skills I can learn from published writers,as I strive to become a better writer.

How do you read a book?

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