Good Reading—Part 1
August 13, 2008 Leave a comment
We discover good reads in lots of different ways. I’ve benefited from reading books about reading and about books worth reading. I have several of these in my library. And one I purchased 18 years ago is still a source of fresh ideas for me. The Prentice Hall Good Reading Guide, by Kenneth McLeish, doesn’t need to be updated.
There are many guidebooks to good reading. They are not all created equal. The Prentice Hall Good Reading Guide introduces more than 3000 novels and short stories by more than 300 authors. One of its chief strengths is its reference system. All entries are arranged alphabetical by the last name of an author and begin with a brief introduction to the authors approach to fiction. In most cases this is followed by a description of one especially chosen work by the author. And this is followed by a list of other fiction by the same person. On the left edge of the page is a selection of items for further reading, called “Read On.” The idea is that if you like the author discussed in the adjacent paragraphs, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy reading items on this list.
Let’s take the entry for John LeCarré to illustrate. LeCarré is the famous spy novelist of the cold war period. The entry contrasts LeCarré’s characters with the swaggering James Bond. The moral purview of this author’s work is depicted in terms of “remorseless moral erosion,” something we might have forgotten about the cold war era. The work featured is the author’s trilogy, The Quest for Karla, published between 1974 and 1980: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People. George Smiley, the central character, doesn’t imagine that he can make much of a dent in worldwide corruption. He acts in the interests of damage control. LeCarré’s other fiction is listed, beginning with his best known spy thriller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The margin suggests that readers enthusiastic about LeCarré’s spy fiction should consider novels by Ruth Rendell and Graham Greene. I might have thought of Graham Greene, and in particular his book The Human Factor. But I probably would not have connected LeCarré with Rendell; in fact, I still haven’t read anything by Ruth Rendell (though I’ve come close). Talking to Strange Men might be a good place to start. Since LeCarré wrote other types of fiction, he’s likened to John Fowles, Frederic Raphael, and Doris Lessing. Fowles I know of from The French Lieutenant’s Woman. And I’ve recently become interested in reading Lessing’s novel Shikasta. But who’s Frederic Raphael? I have no idea.
In addition to this standard approach to author entries, McLeish provides several flow charts showing interesting relationships among various novelists and their respective works. There’s a chart for John LeCarré, in fact. One chart, for Salman Rushdie, groups related works into three categories: “Dictators,” “Politics,” and “Many Generations.” These are captions for trends in the genre of Rushdie’s most significant work. Seventeen individual works, with brief notations, are included in the chart.
McLeish includes numerous “Menus of Suggested Reading,” classified in useful ways. There are menus for “Action Thrillers,” “Agents and Double Agents,” “The Booker Prize,” “Comedy Thrillers,” “Dreaming Spires,” “High Adventure,” “Higher (?) Education,” “The Human Comedy,” “Nineteenth-Century England,” “Only Connect” (what’s that about?), “Perplexed by Life,” “Publish and Be Damned,” “Schools,” “Unlooked-for Friendships,” “War: Behind the Lines,” “War: Front Line,” “Weddings,” “Weepies,” and more. The menu for “The Film Business” lists eight novels by as many authors, including—would you believe—Frederic Raphael!
Finally, there’s an extensive index spanning 38 pages.
See what I mean? It would be hard to beat this arrangement. If you’re looking for a good guide to good reading, I recommend The Prentice Hall Reading Guide.