How I Read

In a review of a book by Alice Munro, Charles McGrath, who edited her at The New Yorker, wrote:

Many of these stories are told in Munro’s now familiar and much remarked on style, in which chronology is upended and the narrative is apt to begin at the end and end in the middle. She has said that she personally prefers to read stories that way, dipping in at random instead of following along sequentially,

That’s what I do. Most books I find are improved if I start in the middle and hop around. Doing so adds difficulty and mystery, which otherwise they are deficient in. Same reason I usually like reality shows more than scripted shows, scripted shows lack that attractive raw edge. Spy magazine had an article about writing guidelines for a woman’s magazine. The guidelines said start in the middle: Talk about someone (“he” this, “he” that) before identifying them.

A few great writers (Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Jacobs, Tolstoy) I don’t do this with. Some true crime (The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule) I don’t do it with. But most books benefit.


8 Replies to “How I Read”

  1. I have read many places that reality shows are scripted, too. Sad, isn’t it ?

    Seth: A reality-show producer told me they do stuff to increase conflict.

  2. Doing this with a novel would give me an anxiety attack. But I love to ski around at random or at least nonlinearly in text books.

  3. “The guidelines said start in the middle: Talk about someone (“he” this, “he” that) before identifying them.”

    This is exactly how my wife talks. She’ll start a conversation in the middle of the story she is relating. I’ve gotten use to it and can follow along quite well (once I ask who “he”, “she”, “them” etc are). When we’re with company, I sometimes have to stop her so the other listeners, who have puzzled looks on their face, can catch on/up. Funny thing is, it never bothers her, she just keeps on telling her story, always with a smile and a laugh.


  4. Chuck, I’ve noticed that not many people know how to tell stories in a coherent, engaging fashion (at least, not when those stories are at all involved). In a related matter, I’ve also noticed that very few people know how to give a good lecture.

  5. My mother & grandmother used to always have conversations in pronouns. No one else in my family could ever figure out who or what they were talking about, but they knew somehow.

  6. My wife does that thing with pronouns too — zooming into stories and anecdotes without telling anyone who she’s talking about. But I believe it’s something many women tend to do. The novelist Tom Perrotta once wrote about a guy whose woman was upset with him and talking in ways he couldn’t follow, but “Dave knew better than to ask her to clarify her pronouns.” My wife tends to get a bit annoyed when I stop her and ask her who she’s referring to — evidently I’m expected to be totally on board with her thought processes. Or maybe just to read her mind, I’m not sure which.

  7. I’m with Aaron on this one. I would be anxious skipping around a narrative. It would spoil my sense of the writer’s structure. I have no trouble with nonlinear storytelling, such the series “Damages” on FX or the movie “Memento”, but I would not enjoy skipping around the story myself.

    On the other hand, when I tell my husband a story you would swear I wrote it out on cards and then shuffled them before reading aloud. We’ll have to ask Deborah Tannen if it’s just a wife thing.

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