The words knowledge and learning are mutating into buzzwords. Today, if you constantly consume content, you can look hip. You can wear constant learning as a status symbol. You can signal to others: you work hard, you’re disciplined, you hustle, and you use Tim Ferriss life hacks. Inside the world of personal optimization, people like to signal how they inhale non-fiction books. In my experience at certain events and masterminds, it’s cool to say — I don’t read fiction, I’m too busy consuming content. A few boast — reading fiction is a waste of time, I’m too busy on my business. When someone says that, rest assured, they’re clueless. They are chasing vanity. Because reading fiction betters your personal and professional life, but only if you know how to find the conversation.
Francine Prose’s, Reading Like A Writer, shows us more than how to better read fiction, she methodically reveals how to deepen our conversation with fiction. She shows how we find meaning, joy, and lessons.
Reading fiction matters. While the studies aren’t airtight, enough indicate how reading fiction bears benefits. 1We can reasonably state fiction helps increase empathy and helps us see other points of view.23When we trace our human lineage, we find strong evidence that humans conveyed information through stories. 4 Humans, you, me — story helps us all understand our world.
How I assume most people read fiction: pick up book, open to page one, try to read to finish. Some go slow, some go fast. Francine Prose teaches a method moving our reading — fiction or non — to an entirely different level.
Like Mortimer Adler’s method in How To Read A Book, Prose shows how we immerse into a story, and we bring the author along with us. And like Adler, Prose’s method cranks up our critical thinking, helps us pick better books, and, most important, cranks up our joy when reading fiction.
So how do we gain all those benefits from reading fiction?
Prose’s core lesson: read word… by… word… slowly.
Prose says to chew over each word. Now, if you’re a reader of my site, and if you’ve read Adler’s How To Read A Book, then you know Prose’s fiction method opposes Adler’s. Adler says to race through fiction. He theorizes that fast fiction reading places us into the story. I find little wrong with Adler’s reading method. He gives us a timeless guide to how we can converse with books. But I differ from Adler in two areas: One, I don’t think it’s necessary to read the great books in order. I argue his method allows us to create our own list. Two, where I part ways with Adler, reading Fiction. Prose’s method works better for fiction. For non-fiction, I use Adler’s method; for fiction, I now use Prose’s method.
Back to the words.
Good writers obsess over what words they use. They say good writing is rewriting. Writers can obsess, ruminate, and ponder what word they want to use. Prose asks us to be conscious of that ruminating, and that rewriting.
Why that word?
How are they using their verbs?
Why that word instead of this one?
Now, you don’t need to be an etymologist and synonym expert with each word. As long as you are conscious, slow down, digest each word, the word awareness develops naturally. As a result, you see what’s being said, how it’s being said, and how the story plays out.
Next, words play out in a sentence.
Prose says digest each sentence. If you’re an avid reader, certain sentences grab you. Short, punchy sentences or long weepy ones. Some authors use a short, punchy style, like Raymond Chandler. Others, like Tolstoy, use long sentences. But both styles are memorable. What Prose teaches us, is how those sentences unfold the story. We see the writer’s style, how they tell the story. It’s like music. The words are the notes, and the sentences play out the melody.
Like a song’s many parts, the chorus, the bridge, the intro, and so on, the paragraph shows us the author’s personality.
Long paragraphs, short paragraphs, medium paragraphs, and sentence word-play, reveals the author’s style. Prose says the writer displays their personality through paragraphs. And I find this true. Just like a song, paragraphs structure the song. Is the song happy, upbeat, big huge vocals and overdubbed guitars? Or is it more mellow, a little understated? The story’s structure takes place here.
Let’s keep tying it to music.
Malcolm Young, AC/DC’s legendary rhythm guitarist and leader, said, “it rocks where it stops.”
In other words, the pauses, what’s not being played, is where the muscle of the song comes from. Good players know when not to play, and it’s not easy. Prose shows us the same thing with dialogue. In short, what’s not being said, reveals masterful dialogue.
When you talk with someone, plenty of things are left unsaid, yet we still spot cues.
We wonder, what did that tone mean?
Were they implying something?
We knowingly leave out things when we speak.
A good dialogue writer understands this and paints it on paper. We pick up emotional nuances between the words. We don’t need the cardboard dialogue: Henry bit his lip, shook side to side, clenched his fist nervously, then looked at Henrietta with a confused tone and said, “huh?”
Prose shows how we become a character in the story, and we wonder, “What did Reacher mean when he said that?”
When we recognize good dialogue, we link to the human element of the story. To me, this lesson quickly changed fiction books. I started to recognize weaker dialogue. I spotted good dialogue. And I picked up themes that normally would fly way over my head. What I enjoyed most, I felt like a character in the story while being guided around with the author.
Prose says what makes the story real, what grounds us in the story, and what roots us to the author’s mind: details.
The details are small. And the details depend on the writer. For instance, Raymond Chandler is known for his hard-boiled analogies. He uses a brute force style. But he depicts furniture, yes furniture, in a way making it real. He shows tiny details in furniture, details easy to pass by, but details tying us, the reader, to the story. Another example, J.K. Rowling, who also writes under the name Robert Galbraith for the Cormoran Strike Series, writes brilliant little details of buildings.
Why is this important?
Most works of fiction, the writer can’t give us every single detail like a movie. The works would be too long. So good writers offer a rather mundane detail — like Chandler describing furniture — and it makes the world real to the reader. We situate into the world. We see it. We feel it. We see symbols. We move closer to the characters, things become intimate.
That moving closer also relates to non-fiction. Good non-fiction writing, whether it’s a blog, The Economist, or a book, show good details. Although the details are different, the details make the writing concrete.
Consider social media posts. Many influencers write vague phrases and terms. Especially those who write with a spiritual, holistic bent, or those who profess success and positive thinking. The less concrete details outside of “energies” or “work hard,” the more salt you need with their buzzwords. Substance, emphasis, and clarity show clear thinking. While you may not agree with the person, you can at least recognize the research and the thought going into their idea.
But Won’t Slow Reading Take Too Long?
It’s easy to say Prose’s method will take too long. It is time-consuming. You might want to inhale more information. I get it. When I get close to finishing a book, I start thinking about the next one. But trying to race through the book misses the point.
Here’s why giving the method a shot with helps your general reading. As I’ve stressed, many people believe when they read that they must hunt lessons. They seek self-serving ideas to better their life. That idea isn’t crazy, and reading a ton works better than not reading; however, when you cherry-pick lessons, you miss context. You end up hunting pithy phrases and platitudes while ignoring the point.
Basically, lesson-hunting or idea-hunting works like trying to hack your way to perfect health. You walk into the gym, wave a few dumbbells around, do a HIIT class, try some low-carb diet like Keto, and you think these shortcuts sculpt the perfect body. It doesn’t work that way.
Adding Prose’s Method to your reading arsenal is like putting in the actual work at the gym. Which isn’t machines or some app promising abs. The work requires lifting heavy weights, whether you’re a man or woman. It requires time, form, and thinking about what you’re doing. It requires eating clean sources of protein and clean carb sources. It may require you to take a DEXA scan, track your calories, to get a Resting Metabolic Rate test. Those who dedicate themselves to that, then realize it takes time. But over time, you do get the aesthetics, strength, or conditioning you want. You progress through the basics. You learn the form, and in time, it becomes natural. Just like reading, if you want better reading, if you want to extract benefits, Prose teaches a powerful skillset, a skillset that’s easy to learn.
Prose’s method works. Whether used on a heady literature work or a fun beach read, it engages you fully with the work. To me, the story becomes a rich, colorful, and real place. You can jump into various points of view, various personalities, and walk around for a bit. You pick up themes, moral guidelines, and different ideas.
I’ll posit a theory: reading fiction word-by-word, slowly, improves your non-fiction reading. You learn a basic skill, you learn it slowly, and you then naturally start seeing other works clearer.
Plus, as a writer, reading fiction this way, it can’t be the worst way to improve your writing. You study sentences, grammar, and so forth. You basically sharpen your skillset as you read. You can get writing lessons from a master of prose, whether it be Stephen King or Cormac McCarthy.
Last I find Prose’s method relates to Adler’s in how it removes the author from the lofty pedestal. You reason with the author, disagree with the author, see their viewpoint for a bit. And this, I think, helps you read anything. You can ground what the author is saying, or see that they have a confusing premise or lack of premise. To me, if you’re one of my subscribers, Prose gives us another beneficial way to improve your ongoing narrative with books — to stoke your continuing and ongoing conversation.