Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Book Nerds Unite!

There may be no greater delight in my life these days than meeting a fellow book nerd. I am not talking about the people we all know who enjoy a good story and spend a lot of time reading before bed at night. I'm talking about the people who live for words, the kind of people who get up in the morning and think about what they're going to read today. These are the people who fall in love with a single sentence or even a single word in a piece of fiction or poetry. I love book nerds. They are my people.

So as soon as I settled down with the literary critic James Wood and recognized a master book nerd, I knew I was in love. In his new book, a short and breezy read entitled How Fiction Works, Wood attempts to understand what goes into good fiction. He explores good narrative (it's all in the usage of "free indirect style" apparently), character development, language and details. He even takes on the idea of realistic fiction being out of style and argues that it will never be out of style to create something from which readers recognize truth.

It was a good read - interesting, fast, and well-organized. But what really got me about How Fiction Works is the respect with which Wood treated literature. This man really, really loves books. He gets breathless when speaking about favorite passages or when talking about how Flaubert changed the novel forever 150 years ago. He's a giant book nerd, and his passion for words and sentences and the things they build - characters, places, worlds - is extremely exciting. It was like talking with a good friend about favorite literary moments. And even though Wood could get a little too academic (read: snobbish) at times, his excitement kept him from feeling pretentious.

And here is where the book really sold me, with it's explanation of why reading matters. Wood writes:

"...In our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit's house to its foundations."

When I think about my reasons for reading, for the way I can never seem to get enough of words and stories and language, I cannot think of any better reason than the one stated in this quote. I read for those glimpses of truth and understanding. Sometimes it's a single sentence or the way a word is placed in a sentence. Sometimes it's the way the writer describes a character walking into a room or eating soup. It's about those things we recognize in humanity but may not have been able to say ourselves.

For a true book nerd, reading isn't just about enjoying the story or falling in love with a character (more on that later this summer). It's about the little things, the small moments that really pack a punch. It's the moment Prince Andrei Bolkonsky smiles coldly like his father in War and Peace. It's the extremely sad final conversation between Jordan Baker and Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Or the final, pleading sentence of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. Hell, it's even in the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald gives gray eyes to doomed Kerry Holiday in This Side of Paradise. There are a million moments that make reading important and necessary and wonderful

In conclusion, book nerds unite and share the love! Wood's book is a good place to start.

Work Mentioned: How Fiction Works, by James Wood


  1. I'd also love to hear what some of your favorite literary moments are, readers! I have so many it's hard to wade through them. But I'd say that smile of Prince Andrei's, a single sentence in a 1300-page book that changes everything, is probably tops.

  2. "You pierce my soul." -Jane Austen

    "When I was with her my feet always seemed to be sticking to the ground while she would e walking on the tips of the grass stems." -William Carlos Williams

    "You will tell me that you have just learned love; I will tell you that you have just learned hope." -William Faulkner

    "In his delightful autobiography, Laurence Olivier, who made a special pilgrimage to Ernest Jones when he was preparing his Hamlet in the 1930s, recalls that one of his predecessors as actor-manager had said in response to the earnest question, 'Did Hamlet sleep with Ophelia?' - 'In my company, always.'" -Elaine Showalter

    "Celeste was really a very questionable little girl to have around if you were pregnant." -Ellen Gilchrist

    "...perhaps a lettuce in the garden dreams as it looks up at the moon by night." -W.G. Sebald

    I have a little notebook that I carry around with me just for this purpose, to write down my favorite literary moments. Lines, rather.