A love letter to the novel - complete with reading list

If you can't get to English class, pick up this book instead

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I have always believed that the world can be divided into two broad categories: English majors and non-English majors. It doesn't matter that many people have never been anywhere near a college campus. You can still tell which group they belong to by asking one simple question: Why do you read?

Non-English majors read to inform themselves. But English majors read because they like to.

However, as I was reading (and enjoying) Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, it occurred to me that there is a sizable third group that ought to be recognized as well. These could be called the über-English majors: people who, long after school is done, continue to read exactly the same kinds of books required in lit courses. They are often also book club-participants. For them, hurling themselves into weighty books is a pleasure that is most delightful when shared by others.

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It is to this group (and I admit to being one of them) that I most heartily recommend Smiley's lengthy meditation on the novel.

It's an unusual concept for a pleasure read and it won't be for everyone. After all, for many people, reading a book with chapter titles like "What is a Novel?", "The Psychology of the Novel," and "The Origins of the Novel" will feel just like homework.

But for the über-English majors among us, that will be exactly the point.

Smiley explains in the introduction how she came to write a 570-page examination of the novel as a form. It was 2001, the World Trade Center had just been destroyed, and she came to a dead end while working on her (since published) novel "Good Faith."

She decided to shut her laptop, walk away from her own novel, and devote herself instead to reading and enjoying 100 great novels by others. This book is the fruit of that experience.

In addition to being a Pulitzer Prize-winning and widely read novelist herself ("A Thousand Acres," "Moo," "The Age of Grief"), Smiley spent many years teaching in college classrooms.

So exposition on the novel comes naturally to her. Über- English majors will embrace this opportunity as they would the chance to reconnect with a favorite professor.

It will allow them to imagine they're back in the classroom as they spend a few hours pondering questions like: Is "A Tale of Two Cities" really a "tale" instead of a "story"? Or, what is the distinction between "liberal" and "conservative" comic novels?

They will also get a chance to decide whether or not they agree with Smiley's provocative (although often unproven) statements about novels, such as "characters [in a novel] are always doing things in private that challenge the reader's sense of what is appropriate." (Always? Really? I'm still ruminating on that one.)

Or her notion that the novel has fundamentally changed the institution of marriage by holding it up for closer examination. (I'd like to be convinced by this one.)

There are also two chapters of advice for aspiring novelists - wise and humane counsel that will more than justify the cost of the book for any would-be writers.

But perhaps the greatest pleasure offered by this cross between a course syllabus and a love letter to the novel are the almost 300 pages at the end. They catalog the 100 novels Smiley read, her reasons for choosing them, and her reactions to them.

Smiley offers this section to the reader saying, "I suggest that it be used like a trunk full of fabric samples or a box of costume jewelry - it is not to be read through from beginning to end in search of a cohesive argument, but to be rummaged about in, in search of something interesting or striking."

There are numerous pleasures to be had in Smiley's "trunk" which includes entries that will surprise all but the most exhaustive readers.

First there is the familiar joy of taking a second look at favorites like "Middlemarch" and "Anna Karenina."

But there's also the more obscure pleasure of wandering through Smiley's comments on lesser known gems like "The Makioka Sisters" and "The Death of the Heart."

I came away from the list full of eager resolve: to finally pick up "The Good Soldier," to reread "The Once and Future King," and - although I'm not entirely sure why - to test "And Quiet Flows the Don."

English majors of all types will also enjoy the parlor game of totaling up the titles they have already consumed. (I made it to 45 but only by cheating a little: I'm pretty sure I never actually got more than halfway through "The Red and the Black" and while I have read three P.G. Wodehouse novels I'm not at all sure they were the ones she listed.)

Smiley's project served its original purpose. She was ultimately able to return to and complete "Good Faith."

Now her book will have a shot at a different mission: reminding readers of the novel why they love their avocation.

As Smiley puts it, "When a novel has two hundred thousand words, then it is possible for the reader to experience two hundred thousand delights, and to turn back to the first page of the book and experience them all over again, perhaps more intensely."

No true reader really needs to be reminded of this, of course, but then again, why not?

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Book editor.

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