It would be surprising if the reading list of anyone who picks up novelist, critic and professor Francine Prose’s What to Read and Why doesn’t instantly grow exponentially. After considering the 33 essays that compose this deeply informed collection, it’s tempting to ask: Is there anything worth reading that she hasn’t read?
Traversing more than a century and a half of literature, from the works of Dickens, Eliot and Balzac to the recent works of Jennifer Egan, Mohsin Hamid and Karl Ove Knausgaard, Prose’s book offers a generous serving of her wide-ranging literary enthusiasms. And Prose’s favorites aren’t limited to canonical authors. If the names Patrick Hamilton or Elizabeth Taylor (no, not the actress) aren’t familiar, Prose’s accolades may tempt you to seek out their work.
As she revealed in her book Reading Like a Writer, Prose is an evangelist for the painstaking but richly satisfying art of close reading. For her, the most rewarding way of engaging with the best writers’ work is at the level of the sentence. With apt examples, she lavishes praise on Jane Austen for the “grace and wit of her sentences” and the “thrilling attention to the shape of paragraph and sentence” in the work of Rebecca West.
Prose doesn’t confine herself to appraisals of individual authors. Several of the most satisfying essays in this book focus on broader subjects like the uses of art or the difficult task of defining the short story. The essay “On Clarity” is a masterly primer on the art of graceful writing, a gift Prose displays on every page.
What to Read and Why is a collection of love letters to the art of literature. The only impediment to devouring this book is the persistent urge to trade it for the work of one of the writers Prose so avidly praises.