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Lots of folks are out there selling the latest and greatest (usually written by them) books on How to Become a Great Writer. 

Personally, I have nothing against promoting your own work. In today’s cyber-spaced-out-twitterpedia market, it’s just what is demanded of authors. But before all this instant gratification culture hit us, there were writers who took it slow. Who did the deed deeply and with precision. These are the ones to follow and sit quietly studying if you truly want a shot at stardom.

Of course, that’s just Mom’s opinion 🙂. And we all know how Moms are in general when it comes to having a thought about something–right. Just blatantly, unarguably, right.

If you are interested in peering in over the shoulder of many great writers, take a look at Francine Prose’s book “Reading Like a Writer.” My review of this “rocked my world” book follows. It was originally written for my gig as a reviewer at CatholicFiction.Net for Tuscany Press. If you want to write, buy this book, dog-ear it, go in deep, savor it and don’t spare the highlighter markings! I promise it will up your game, no matter whether you’re a wannabe, a beginner or a seasoned pro!

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In her book Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose sets out to explain the art of reading and enjoying words written by some of the world’s most gifted authors. In artfully dissecting great works piece by piece, Prose succeeds without lecturing.  In Reading like a Writer she uses sample passages by literary giants to teach her readers, while simultaneously demonstrating her love for the written word. The only part of this book that nearly caused me to knock it down to four stars from the deserved five, was the passage where she tells of her passion and enjoyment of diagramming sentences! Mercifully, this errant exaltation only lasts for a scant few sentences and then Prose is back to the beautifully told stories of and about the stories we love to read.

Anyone who loves books, read books, writes them or hoards them in tall stacks should own Reading like a Writer. The 300+ pages are crafted like a tour of a well curated library.  Each point made by Prose (whose ironic last name is quite telling) unfolds before the reader as a gift. At no time does this book feel like a required text for a tiresome Lit class.  Francine Prose herself is a gifted writer. She sets out to teach appreciation of the perfection laid onto pages for readers by the greatest of the great writers and succeeds fully.

Prose begins Chapter 1 by explaining the method and joys of “Close Reading.”  This is something I have never thought of or experienced.  Like most people, I am a casual reader. I am generally not “deep.”  I tend to read at face value, simply closing the book when the last page ends. “Close Reading” totally changed my approach to pleasure reading.  I pulled a couple of my favorite books down from the bookcase to “play along” as I read on.

Chapter 2 is about “Words.”  She teaches the reader to intimately consider each word chosen for a sentence. We learn here that one by one, the writer of substance discerns each word and asks if it is meaningful, meaty, or simply acting as a place holder.  I was on fire with the idea of the power of a single word given to or taken from a sentence. Back at my bookcase, into my personal manuscripts, the same questions and word scrutiny was happening alongside Francine’s coaching.  All the way through her book, Prose introduces and then thoroughly demonstrates her method for understanding and appreciating one narrow topic after another.

We are led through such chapters as “Sentences,” “Paragraphs,” “Narration,” “Character,” “Dialogue,” “Details,” and “Gesture.”  Each part inspired another look back at my own beloved books and indeed, my own writing to make comparisons. Just as it seemed no other topic is possible to explore, Francine Prose walks right up to the lofty and learned principles of the author Chekhov in her chapter “Reading for Courage.” This chapter is one where the true God-given talent of the author is revealed between words.

While the head spins with happiness from the new enjoyment that one is able to extract from old favorites, Prose hits the reader with her personal recommendations.  This is a lengthy list of titles (117 but who is counting?) which she names as “Books to Be Read Immediately.”  A tall order?  Absolutely, considering that no fewer than five are tomes by Tolstoy.  However, being armed with these new insights imparted by Reading like a Writer I feel inspired and capable.  Those 117 books will all go on my bucket list alongside my well-worn copy of Francine Prose’s wonderful field guide to absorbing great writing!

What Samuel Johnson said so perfectly — “A writer only begins a book; a reader finishes it” — Francine Prose eloquently proves in Reading like a Writer.