Like most writers, I read voraciously. I keep a meticulous record of the books I read in an Excel file. These books fall in two broad categories: “classics,” meaning older books that are generally lauded, and “moderns,” those newly-published books that have generated excitement for their literary merit (or otherwise).
Over the past several weeks I’ve been reading a healthy list of “moderns.” This includes Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq.
With the classics, I’ve been reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Collected Ancient Greek Novels translated by B.P. Reardon. (Yes, the ancient Greeks wrote novels, and some of them are quite good. Others are not so good.)
I read with two broad goals in mind. One, I enjoy reading. I love books like any other reader. But the other goal is more professional. I read these works to see what the authors have done. I study them, dissect them, make notes about them, trying to figure out what, exactly, the writer did. How did characterisation develop? How did she run the plot? What are the themes? How did she structure sentences? And so on. And so on.
I can normally read a book and handle both these objectives of enjoyment and study simultaneously. Sometimes, though, this is impossible. The best books don’t allow this. I have to read them once for pleasure and then immediately read them again to study them. It is like you are standing on top of a ski jump carefully observing how it was constructed. Then all of a sudden you realise that you are sliding down the slope, and objective analysis is no longer possible. You have to go ahead and enjoy the jump, and then return to study how the structure was built.
This was what happened to me with Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa. The book is such a compelling story that I was immediately pulled in and had to immerse myself before returning to see what in the world Hemingway was doing with it. Green Hills of Africa is almost frightening to read. In all honesty, he is so magnificent that several times I blurted out involuntarily “How did he do that?”
When I read a short phrase or sentence that really excites me, I like to post it on my Facebook profile. Here is an example, one of my favourite passages from John Banville’s The Sea:
I remember standing in the wind under the shaking radiance of a street light awaiting some grand and general revelation and then losing interest in it before it could arrive.
That is simply a superb passage, something most professional writers could spend their whole lives trying and failing to achieve.
While reading Green Hills of Africa, I came up with many such sentences. There were passages about literature I could have quoted. There were descriptions of the African landscape, or Hemingway’s feelings about hunting, or his depictions of relationships that would have made excellent quotes.
But something held me back. I couldn’t post them. Quoting a stand-alone sentence from this book almost felt sacrilegious to me. It was ripping these sentences from their context, their rightful home, the place where they belonged. Posting a single sentence would be like posting a picture of supermodel Kate Upton’s nose. Don’t get me wrong, Kate, you have a great nose, but someone needs the whole picture to appreciate your beauty.
So instead of quoting a sentence or two from Green Hills of Africa, I’m going to encourage you to read the book. Just like gazing at a picture of Kate Upton in all her glory, it is something that will stick with you for a long time to come.