How to Write About a Book

What does an author do for a semi-landmark like this, my 300th post? 300 is a somewhat ungainly number; it’s two too many hundreds to be special, but not halfway to a fourth digit like 500. It was made famous at Thermopylae, but a web log hardly merits a comparison to an event of that stature. Nonetheless, since it’s taken over nine years to get to this point, I’ll go ahead and take the opportunity to pat myself on the back – hooray for me!

Anyway, I don’t claim to be a particularly talented writer, but after so many posts, most of them reviews of some kind at this point, I can say that I’m comfortable writing and fairly confident in my ability to talk about books, fiction or non-fiction. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some advice with those who’d like to get better at writing and talking about literature themselves.

This subject will most interest students, of course, and perhaps others thinking of starting a literature blog, or maybe just members of a book club. I can honestly say, though, that writing has been immensely helpful in my own intellectual growth. I’ve written elsewhere that good art is something to be savoured, not scarfed down like fast food. The habits I’ve gained as part of running this blog have ensured that I digest what I read more fully, even for books that I don’t go on to review. So, I hope everyone will find at least some of my advice useful, and if you’ve given any thought to doing some writing of your own then by all means give it a shot, and don’t be discouraged if your early efforts turn out awkward. If you come away from this post with one main idea, let it be this: writing about literature (or non-fiction) is a learned skill, and like any other skill, you’ll only get good at it with practice.

Now, those who’ve followed me for a long time can probably guess my first recommendation here: Mortimer Adler is your man. His most famous book, How to Read a Book, co-authored with Charles van Doren, and the essay “How to Mark a Book,” are both well worth your time. It’s also wise to read a bit about literature. As usual, the Classics are a good starting-point; check out Poetics, by Aristotle, which in Loeb Classical Library’s edition comes with the also worthwhile On the Sublime, by Longinus, and On Style, by Demetrius. Also give Ezra Pound’s more idiosyncratic ABC of Reading a try. All of these works are fairly short, but give some guidance on how to think and write about literature. On Style may help out your own style, as well.

In my case, and I think this is true for many people, the central problem of writing and talking about books isn’t so much the actual writing process, but figuring out what to say. If you ever want to dig through the archives of Everything is Oll Korrect!, you’ll find that I often didn’t have much to say in my early reviews. My suggestions will derive from my own posts, not because I think I’m an ideal model, but because this is, obviously, the work I’m most familiar with, and whose writing process I know best.

So, the simplest approach to writing about a book is simply describing what’s in it, and this is the style of review I got decent at earliest. This is, of course, well-suited to works that don’t necessarily merit a ton of analysis, like a single volume of Oh, My Goddess!, where it was sufficient to highlight what happens, illustrate it, and explain why it works (or didn’t, in this case). Note, though, that a mere synopsis is the most boring form of review, so do include some commentary (more on this in a moment).

Synopsis may be dull, but there are times when it’s best to let an author speak for himself. Many of my own posts are designed mostly to give an idea of what a book is like, as something of a sample to let the audience decide if it’s something they’d like to read or not. So, with Robert Lewis Dabney’s A Defense of Virginia and the South, after giving some background information and explaining why Dabney’s work is worthwhile, despite being something of a moot point today, I go through chapter-by-chapter, quoting heavily. I wouldn’t do this for something discussion-focused like a book club, but again, it works well for simply introducing a topic to the audience.

Of course, summarising works best for non-fiction, where the author’s ideas are the focus. For fiction and poetry, synopsis sometimes just means spoiling the story, while also removing the author’s style. In any sort of review, it’s easy to say whether one likes a book or not; to determine why one likes it, though, is the beginning of thought for literature, non-fiction, and for that matter the arts in general. We tend to be passive consumers of both art and non-fiction. We sit down and read, watch a movie, listen to music, and enjoy it (or not enjoy it, as the case may be), and that’s the end of it.

Say you’ve just finished a novel. If you enjoyed it, what did you like about it? Perhaps the characters were especially likable. Why? Perhaps they were realistic or relatable? What made them so? Maybe you liked some of the author’s world-building. What details did he include that made the setting seem real? Did that realism break at any point?

This may seem time-consuming, but once you form a habit of thinking this way it becomes second-nature. In fact, I’d recommend mulling over some of this before you finish, whenever you have some free time while bored at work, in the shower, or whatever. This is where it also helps to make notes as you go, which keeps you engaged and makes it easier to refer back to important passages when you’re done.

Once you’ve determined whether and why a story works, now you can explain it. Take Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels. The thing most everyone notices about them is the nonsensical humour. It works, and even appeals to adults despite being a children’s book, because as I discuss in the article, it’s not as nonsensical as it appears.

Say, however, that you mainly want to write about a work because it’s personally important to you. Talking about one’s favourite works is, in my experience, either the most interesting and rewarding approach or the most boring. Again, the key here is to figure out why a book is a favourite of yours, which can take a lot of introspection. For example, jumping out of the book world for a moment, one of my favourite works of art is serial experiments lain, but it took a long time for me to be able to put my finger on what the appeal is exactly. I did eventually figure it out, and I think that’s one of my best posts, but it came after several false starts. Similarly, it took some prompting from a friend and a coincidental memory of another writer altogether before I could pin down what exactly is so interesting about novelist Mishima Yukio.

Finally, sometimes one just can’t come up with a lot to say from any one of these angles; so, put them together. In my article on Shakespeare’s Richard III, I talk a little about the plot and its main theme, a little about how to approach Shakespeare in general, and a little about my experience with the play.

So, beyond all that, the actual writing process is largely a matter of trial-and-error to find what works best for you. I like writing first drafts by hand, and would highly recommend giving that a try, but some people do better just starting out with a word processor. One can still buy a typewriter, so apparently some people still prefer that, even. The main point here, again, is that writing is a learned skill, and it’s one that you’ll only get better at with practice, so if it’s one you’d like to get better at, grab a notebook and start scribbling.

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