Cynthia Lee Katona, Book Savvy

According to its jacket blurb, Book Savvy is “an effective guide for the burgeoning book-club community as well as a tool for literature teachers struggling to spark the interest of their students.” I certainly hope book clubs and teachers will choose better guides than this volume. For one thing, it is superficial, even shallow, in its approach to literature and to readers: do people literate enough to join book clubs really need icons indicating whether a book is one to be read “for information,” “for suspense,” or “to know oneself”? The author also rates each book for its “level of challenge”–at 5 we find “challenging masterworks of literature” (Madame Bovary or Hamlet, for instance, at 4 “works of literature with enduring qualities” (The Merchant of Venice, for example, or … The Robber Bride?), at 3 books that, while “thought provoking,” can be “read by almost anyone” (Sister Carrie or Bleak House…??), etc. Well, OK, the categories are idiosyncratic and the application of her standards sometimes suggests the author has not herself read the books in question very carefully, but I suppose for really insecure readers, it is helpful to be guided so as not to set your sights too high. And maybe, just maybe, it is odd but not unthinkable that The Picture of Dorian Grey should be brought up as an “example of a book to read primarily for thinking, writing, and conversational skills”; after all, as she goes on to say, Wilde “was a well-known wit and man-about-town” (p. 33), and wouldn’t we all like to be so quotable? Never mind what the novel is actually about! But when I came across this bit, I lost patience with amateur hour in the reading room: “One of the great innovations of twentieth-century literature was a movement away from telling the stories of kings and queens and other quite extraordinary people to the telling of stories of average people…” (p. 49). Innovations of twentieth-century literature? You see why I’m not sure she has read Bleak House, never mind, say, Moll Flanders? If Book Savvy does spark a student’s interest, then that’s all to the good, but it won’t take most savvy readers long to figure out that they need to look elsewhere for real insight and reliable information.

This book has set me back a bit in my enthusiastic quest for ways to write about literature that fall in between the dreary erudition of professional criticism and the free-for-all of Amazon.Com reviewing. On the other hand, I suppose I could view it as motivating–inquiring readers deserve better. I’ve started Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, which looks much more promising. It interested me that early on she registers her own antipathy towards literary criticism academic style: “Only once did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school….” (8).

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