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Books for Writers: Second Reading by Jonathan Yardley

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Second Reading: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Yardley is a study in creative literary criticism. The book, a collection of columns that originally ran in the Washington Post between March 2003 and 2010, is a reminder to some and an introduction to many, that book reviewing needn’t read like a fifth grader’s book report or a cold, lifeless analysis; there is a lively space between these wildly divergent approaches.

The idea for the column came to Yardley after a lunch with the Post’s new Style section editor. Jonathan would go back into the books he’d read in the past and explore his thoughts a second time around. Given the nature of the theme, the short essays often include personal history, a reflection on how the work was originally received, and what might have changed over the years.

As an amateur critic, very much still studying and practicing, I have the tendency to leave my feelings out of a review, fearful of injecting any sense of the “I,” lest my thoughts not be taken seriously. As a compulsive reader, Yardley’s columns were utterly enjoyable but more importantly, they were freeing.

In his column revisiting Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults, Someone Like You, he says, “Precisely how I came upon Dahl’s work I do not recall,” something, previously, I never would have thought of admitting to in a review. It never occurred to me that a professional could use that level of personal revelation.

Conversely, in his essay on Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Yardley remembers exactly when he came across the book: “I quite clearly remember when I first read it. In the winter of 1962-63, I was put out of work by the infamous printer’s strike against the New York papers—I was working then at the New York Times—and decided to try to write a magazine article about the increasing militancy of the civil rights movement and its accompanying rhetoric. I read everything I could get my hands on”.

As with his confession to a faulty memory, in the same piece about Richard Wright, Yardley says something many of us can relate to (and often remain silent about out of shame), “The trouble with a reading binge, of course, is that you take in too much. It all becomes a big blur in which individual books tend to get lost.” That murky recollection of past readings is enough reason, if one has the time, to go back to once-loved texts.

With Toni Morrisson’s 1973 novel, Sula, which Yardley was assigned that year by the Post to review, he chose to revisit the story because his memories of it were “admiring and fond but vague”. He wanted to see “how it had held up over more than three decades.”

He’s mostly positive about the books he rereads but for those he’s less than favorable towards, his swipes are amusing, and really not all that controversial. For example he said, “Rereading The Catcher in the Rye after all those years was almost literally a painful experience,” going on to say, “The combination of Salinger’s execrable prose and Caulfield’s jejune narcissism produced effects comparable to mainlining castor oil.”

With Hemingway, not only did his view of the writer’s style change but also of the writer himself: “To say my judgments changed in the ensuing four decades is an understatement. I came to regard Hemingway’s style as more self-conscious and mannered than pure, declarative and spare; I realized that in almost all of his writing, he had little of interest to say; and I came to loathe his worst traits of personality and character—meanness that often turned into cruelty; self-centeredness; bluster and braggadocio; exaggerated, showy machismo.”

Knowing his audience, and, as a self-confessed “Strunkaholic,” Yardley offers a glowing review of Strunk & White’s classic, Elements of Style. He opens with a smile-inducer: “One of the never-ending frustrations of my otherwise enjoyable half-century newspaper career has been  what newspapers call ‘style.’ Newspapers have many good qualities but ‘style’ most certainly is not among them.”

Second Reading contains a good mix of books I’ve read, which includes the three listed above; books by authors I’ve been meaning to read, such as Eudora Welty, Nora Ephron, and William Stryon; and books by those new to my ears. Yardley’s engaged examination of the works and authors makes it so you needn’t be familiar with either and after just a few essays, you’ll realize you’re in the presence of a trustworthy source, making Second Reading, if nothing else, an excellent reference book.

For aspiring literary critics, however, Second Reading is something of a self-help book. As I continued to read, I was inspired to try this personal approach in my own writing, convinced I could break away from the bland reporting I’d originally thought necessary. The column, in general, is itself a great lesson, especially those practicing by way of a personal blog and not beholden to an editor: create a theme. When writer’s or reader’s block strikes, much like a writing prompt, having a focus will get you over the hurdle.

Second Reading is motivational reading for all writers. You won’t know what to run for first, your bookshelf or your notebook.

Buy Second Reading at IndieBound or find it at a local indie bookstore near you
Jonathan Yardley’s archive at the Washington Post 

Written by Gabrielle

March 20, 2012 at 7:24 am

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