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NOT a 'have you read this' book, more of a 'why I like reading and what I get out of it' book - or what I call in my brief amazon.com review a series of sparkling meditations on reading. What follows is mainly polemic

Anti-evolutionary rear-guard action, the literalist's last stand, gained new life as religion appeared to be on its last legs - in the West, that is - and likewise, as the habit of reading (of a serious nature) comes under ever-increasing threat, we're swamped by book-porn. Why read about it when you could be at it? Because there's room for both, dummy. Don't let this one's hectoring title put you off. Neither didactic nor simplistic but enthusiastic, sporadically informative and surprisingly wide-ranging ('The nineteenth-century novel is to the hegemonic middle classes what the romance was to feudal aristocrats and the ballad to the peasantry' but also 'most books look better after seventy years than their owners'), this is not a book you would expect to provoke ire. It pissed off Tom Shone in the NYT Book Review mightily, though; he thought it élitist. For a high-flying don Sutherland's range strikes me as uncommonly eclectic - Grisham, Clancy ('verve'), Uris ('workmanlike practitioner': not, I think, faint praise) - and in fact an Oxford Companion to Popular Fiction is apparently in the works, but in any case without élites to lead us we would still be scrabbling around on the ground. Not that I'm taking sides now (would I do such a thing?) but for that alone Sutherland deserves at least **** - though the list of books at the end is just that, a list *BY TITLE* of books mentioned in the text (not necessarily favourably, and at least thrice giving away the plot device); how much better a simple author index would have been!

I was shocked to see Sutherland following Zadie Smith in using the French word hommage, italicised and all (p122), for English homage. Adding a redundant m amounts to sticking undignified 'aren't I pretentious' air quotes around a perfectly serviceable word dating back 800 years whose pronunciation is now in danger of going the way of niche, universally pronounced nitch within living memory (mine). Smith at least has the excuse of living in America, where they customarily pay homage to French-derived words (garage, perfume and culinary terms without number) by stressing the last syllable. To change the spelling, though, marks even an American out as both affected and ill-informed, and probably superficial and self-regarding too. But one cannot not grow fond of old John. Of the famous beginning to Anna Karenina he says 'it is manifestly not true'. 'Is not 'happy family', in Tolstoy's world.. a contradiction in terms?' The Boy Who Loved Books awaits..

* Writers who provoke ire should always be encouraged - in moderation. I shall never be able to read Terry Eagleton again after his Thomas Aquinas review last December. I'd like to kick him downstairs, knowing full well that is just the reaction he's out to provoke, damn his slippery hide
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on 7 September 2006
I bought this on the strength of the first chapter which was all about "pseudo-choice" and the book avalanche we are now subjected to. I found this a reasonably spirited and even - shock! - impassioned attack on the flooding of the market with so much of a middling quality that reduces the literary experience to a uniform flatness. Perhaps. But I read on and nothing really matched this, although he has a nice jokey way I guess.
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on 22 August 2006
I eagerly pre-ordered this having seen it puffed in the national press, and read it in a day or so. I'd hoped it would give me a new perspective on the wide variety of novels (from Tolstoy and Austen to Sophie Kinsella) that I read, and some insights that I, as a science graduate, haven't gained from my education.

It was an enjoyable read and I liked Sutherland's illustration of his points with examples from a wide range of literature. I gained some useful insights and tips - such as the 'read page 69' test for bookshop browsers, and the need to consider the various timings of a novel's conception, writing, publication and setting. However, some of the content, such as the discussion of the economics of publishing and bookshops, was thin; perhaps because this is not Sutherland's real expertise. He's an academic and critic, not a publisher or bookseller, and it shows. Even the 'literary' content was diluted and too populist, I felt. I had read the vast majority of the books he name-checked and would have liked more pointers to lesser-known works.

It was a worthwhile read, but he could have assumed rather more knowledge and intelligence in his audience, and delivered a more satisfying book.
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#1 HALL OF FAMEon 4 November 2006
I'm quite a fan of books on books, since reading a book about books can make you pick up or return to a book previously unread, or re-set the way you think about a certain novel or writer. John Sutherland's `How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide' is an addition to the Bloom-Bradbury style canon and more recent offerings like the BBC's `The Big Read' (which Sutherland was involved in) and my favourite book of this kind, the Faber-Waterstones millennial publication `The Test of Time: What Makes a Classic a Classic?.'

Sutherland's book is the ideal book to read between books, maybe it will get you picking up a certain title here - though elements of the book aren't that far away from several books for aspiring writers, e.g. elements such as sleeve-art, publishers, or editing. The chapter `Hardback or paperback?' ties in with an overall approach that nods to the way we have more choices than ever with the advent of Amazon and the net - which the first chapter `So many novels, so little time' alludes to.

This book is very up to date, touching on Zadie Smith's recent EM Forster-referencing `On Beauty' and the notion of the prize novel - I don't recall mention of Richard & Judy, who jumped on the Oprah-publishing bandwagon, but they are quite forgettable. There are many common debates here, which suggests that anyone studying literature or film may want to read this - I enjoyed the part that touched on adaptations and Sutherland's scathing estimation of the dire adaptation of Woolf's `Mrs Dalloway.' The recent adaptation of `Pride & Prejudice' is touched on, so the common book vs. movie/television adaptation features and the way people know certain books despite never having read the source texts (apparently Kate Bush's `Wuthering Heights' was informed by a BBC adaptation and not a primary reading of Bronte's novel).

The chapters are short and great to dip into, one to browse in a coffee shop, or transport you in your lunch hour - the section on `Saturday' and John Banville veered off into journalism and the scathing way writers are about writers - very Martin Amis, very `Ravelstein'! I enjoyed the excellent chapter setting book against film, particularly Sutherland's comparison of two key Hubert Selby Jr novels against their cinema versions - the reference to the `Tralala'-gang rape and the unpleasant conclusion that didn't feature in Uli Edel's adaptation reminds you how much more graphic a novel can be...

The only drawbacks were the obligatory reference to the over familiar post-modernity of `Pulp Fiction' and the fact the editor didn't notice that Philip K Dick's novel has a title that is `Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' - rather than the electronic brand alluded to on page 62. Sloppy stuff, especially when the book touches on the realm of publishing. `How to Read a Novel' is hugely readable stuff and would make a fine book to browse through in the initial months of your first year at university; then again, it would make an engaging read whoever you are. It made me want to read `Saturday', after I'd been confused by the critical reception and somewhat put off - obviously it's in the `to read' pile still!!
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I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book, finding it difficult to put down and then looking forward to picking it up again. John Sutherland certainly tells his readers how to read a novel, but also covers many other topics about publishing and the book trade. Beginning with the presentation of the book (dust-jacket, cover design, author photograph etc), he moves on to show how these have all developed over time to become a key marketing tool - packaging is all, in the book trade as well as for those who sell baked beans. John Sutherland well understands how difficult it is to choose a book to read among the vast numbers available in bookshops or online and gives his views on reviewers, advertising, back cover recommendations, best-seller lists and competitions. His considerable background as a reviewer, columnist, academic and Booker prize judge enable him to provide a huge amount of inside information to help readers navigate a bookstore without being taken in by the marketing hype of the industry.

Throughout the book, Sutherland describes the history of novel publishing, but in a humorous and entertaining way which draws the reader along with him. The book is witty and amusing as well as being informative. Where necessary, he focuses in on specific books, and shows how particular novels were land-marks of their time, which led to many others following. The book is almost a mini-history of the novel and shows how public tastes have changed over the years.

The title of this book may put off those who think they can read novels perfectly well without requiring outside help. However, this book goes far beyond its remit and would be of interest to anyone who loves books and want to read a little more intelligently It also will help them understand the subtle ways in which the book trade influences the public but also sometimes gets things totally wrong. I am pleased that Sutherland shares my own incomprehension why certain novels flourish (for example, those about mediaeval conspiracy theories!) while others fade away without trace.

I would recommend this book to anyone who reads novels - they will not be disappointed with the few hours spent within its covers and will want to keep it on their shelves as a reference guide.
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VINE VOICEon 30 August 2006
A fascinating and surprisingly amusing look at the publishing industry, tracing the history of the novel and its growing popularisation and our changing relationship with the written word and analysing what, how and why we read.

Don't be put off by the apparently dry premise; while the writer is well-known academic, he is a master of the art of writing for the generalist audience and this turns out to be an enjoyably easy, witty and often very funny read.
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on 10 September 2007
On the face of it John Sutherland's guide to choosing a novel - rather than reading it, as the title suggests - is a light, semi-intellectual trawl through the world of books and booksellers.

Once you read a little deeper you come to understand it is about John Sutherland, his obsessions and his prejudices about readers. We learn that men read SF and crime while women read romances - try telling that to any of the crime reading women who make up the largest readership of the genre. We also learn that it's somehow morally better to read a bestseller before it becomes a bestseller, which seems a very strange opinion. But, it's Sutherland himself we learn most about. He has two main obsessions - Victorian novels and sex as expressed through rape. Almost all the examples feature one or the other. And while an obsession with the Victorians isn't anything to be ashamed of, the relish with which he introduces, chooses and discusses the scenes of rape are totally unpalatable to the general reader.
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on 11 April 2007
Deception is the first and most important criticism against this book. The title "How to read a novel" is almost entirely unrelated to the book's contents. More appropriate titles could have included "About Novels" or "Novel Selection and History". Unfortunately, the deceptive title is merely the start of a painful read.

The first fifty pages of the book, and many beyond that, are laced with the author's personal anecdotes, most of them completely irrelevant to the subject of the book. The author revels in revealing his perceived self-importance, literary connections and sexual fascinations - the subject of Colin Firth's nipples is touched on twice and Heath Ledger's pubic hair is also referenced. Pages fifty to one-hundred are filled with a plethora of ridiculous, irrational and meaningless statements. A prime example is the author's suggestion that reading a novel before it becomes a bestseller somehow adds value to the experience. Other gems soon follow "Least reliable, alas, are the reviewers. Not because they are poor judges of quality but because - like the rest of us - they are swamped." So are we to conclude that no review is worth reading? Statements that imply nothing can be known for sure or reasonably judged are anti-intellectual. Differences in taste as to style and nuance will always exist and properly so, but differences in the rational interpretation of the fundamental elements of prose cannot be allowed because if serious novels can have no universal meaning (thus something measured by the standards of reality - reason and logic) they can have no value other than entertainment.

The final allegation against the book is the author's statements about various novels that makes one seriously question whether he has actually read them or done his homework e.g. he asserts that Gone With The Wind glorified slavery and that Atlas Shrugged only sold because of the time it was written in (the author may want to familiarise himself with the concept of current sales figures).

This book is a shameless exercise in deception, public exposure and anti-intellectualism.
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on 3 December 2006
I am surprised so few people have reviewed this. This is a book meant for the Amazon community... teaching us all about our favourite thing: books. It refrains from getting to literary on the reader, eschewing all the criticism stuff, and raises some interesting points about all the stuff around, on and in books (covers, blurb etc). The only downfall is that Prof Sutherland seems to feelthe need to justify his Booker panel's choice... a little too often. That said, for all us book watchers, it's rather intriguing to hear!
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Thought the title was a bit off-putting (of course I know how to read a novel!) but read it because I knew and liked John Sutherland's writing. I was not disappointed. All the chapters are very short - sometimes too short, leaving me wanting more - but the book is filled with interesting information and quirky observations that left lots of ideas swirling around in my head.

It is virtually a history of the novel with lots of ideas and examples thrown in along the way. Didactic without being preachy or overly academic. His reflections on historical fiction were particularly interesting. Do my ideas on Victorian England come from history books or from Eliot, Gaskell and Dickens? And have I learned about the depression years in USA from documentaries or from reading The Grapes of Wrath?

I disagree with him about hardback editions being the book of choice - I actually prefer paperbacks and only buy a hardback if I really can't wait to read it in paperback. I strongly disagree with with ideas on interacting with a novel by writing in the margin. He may call it guerilla annotation - some would call it vandalism! (But I am so pleased that he liked McEwan's Saturday - I loved this book and am perplexed by the vicious negativity from some reviewers.)

My only criticism is that I would have preferred less about the physical aspects of books (fonts, covers etc) and more about the content. But John Sutherland has produced a witty, perceptive book brimming with ideas. If you like to read novels you will love this book.
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