By the Book: Good reading is all about the writing

Credit: Ashley Pinciaro
Credit: Ashley Pinciaro

I’d forgotten the name of a character in a book and went to Wikipedia. I found what I wanted, but was struck by how easy it is to find not only a name, but five paragraphs that tell the entire story — how it began, what happened along the way and how it ended. I thought of Classic Comics, where you could start with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” then ease your way to “It is a far, far better thing, etc.,” with the hundreds of pages of the middle stuff jammed into 30 pages of colorful drawings. And Dickens? Well, he certainly stuck a bunch of extra words into his sentences, so a lot of time was saved. And maybe kids got a C- instead of an F. But Classic Comics wasn’t reading.

Reader’s Digest’s Condensed Books were in the same vein. The staff up in Pleasantville (where RD was headquartered) took three 320-page best sellers, scissored them into three 160-page bestsellers and presented one 480-page something-or-other. That wasn’t reading either, although one could now attend a cocktail party and say, “Oh yes, and that wonderful dog snatched the important papers and ran off” — i.e. “Yeah, I read that.”


Cliff’s Notes? Really good for taking tests — main characters, plot, sub-plot, crisis, turning point, end. Just the facts, ma’am. Maybe good for a B+, but reading? Get real.

What’s my point? Here’s a line from a pretty good book I just read, about a couple living in a lighthouse. “On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you’re wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, not the wind.” Definitely an “I wish I’d said that” sentence that probably wouldn’t appear in any condensed version.

Nor would this, from a not very good book: “The church door was open. Inside the blood of the martyrs fell from the stained glass windows and lay in pink patterns.” Not available on Wikipedia.

A big part of reading for me is the writing: words chosen and mixed together, images conjured, moods set, feelings evoked. Does the writing actually tell the story? Not really, but it embroiders everything together and carries us along. Here are two more examples:

“ … there was an enormous couch on which two women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.”

“ … I ran through the snow. I tripped, I cracked ice and fell into pools. I fell against a rock and struck my jaw, and I tore my skin on thorns so that I bled and left blood on the ground. But when we want to find a way, we do, and I said to myself up! Get up! — for all I wanted was to be back in Glencoe. I knew trouble was coming. I knew what lay ahead.”

I’m not selling anything, just demonstrating some of the things that keep me reading.

TR050808_book_Case_R.jpgMr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].