The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark

If your book club is boring, if you weary of your writing students saying only they did or did not like an assigned text, if you need better feedback from your critique group, then this book may help.

Clark, Roy Peter. The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing. New York: Little, Brown & Co, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction, instructional literary critique

Summary: Using bearable dosages of 10-pages apiece, each chapter of Clark’s book teaches readers how put on x-ray goggles and see under the skin of some literary masterworks. Shirley Jackson, Earnest Hemingway, Rachel Carson. Fiction and nonfiction. Clark pinpoints a selection of techniques and illustrates how the writer deployed them, to what effect, why it matters, and how an emerging writer might adopt those techniques.

Critique: Compared to the reams of scathing or geeky lit critique I had read for both of my Master’s programs, Clark’s assessments of these masterworks are light. That is not to say his analyses were ineffective. On the contrary, about the time I’d be gearing up for some deconstruction of Foucaultian power paradigms or perhaps a feminist examination of symbolic liminal zones as they relate to Kristeva’s archetypes, Clark would wrap the chapter with a quick conclusion and list of applicable writing techniques or exercises. In other words, Clark can and will whet your appetite for rich literary analysis and then get the heck out of Dodge before you a.) get bored or b.) mount a counter argument (not because you want to but because the habit carved into your brain tissues after years of formal education).

I heartily recommend this book to book clubbers, the teachers of writing classes, and the leaders of critique groups. Wine drinkers, students, and novice writers alike can see what it is to pick apart text. To read as they have never done before. They can glean from Clark’s tutorials not just how to do that, but why. In mechanical terms, it’s like teaching someone how to first see a piston in the great tangled metal belly of an engine and then helping them comprehend how miraculous, how integral that little component is — not just in the smooth and powerful running of that motor, but also in the grand scheme of automobile history and human innovation.

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The Secret Life of Stories by Michael Bérubé

Berube_secretlifestoriesBérubé, Michael. The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read. New York: NYUP, 2016. Print.

Summary: Regardless of whether a book features a disabled person, says Bérubé, all literature on the whole is haunted with intellectual disability in some way. At times, disability sparks or corrupts motives, generating a more compelling plot. But for the cleverest of writers, intellectual disability illuminates and elevates the entire text by disabling the narrative in a way that makes more “abled” readers work hard to decode the the story while simultaneously gaining a better understanding of what it is like to have a disability.

Critique: The title drew me in. Suckered, more like. Stories have a secret life? Just like bees??? And that secrecy has something to do with disability? Count me in as curious!

Reading Bérubé’s touching introduction about his youngest son’s intellectual disability set me up to think the text that followed was going to be intellectual creative nonfiction à la E. O. Wilson. But unfortunately, the book reads like a PhD dissertation. Didactic scholarly tone. Long sentences that tie their own grammatical and syntactical Celtic knots. Plenty of phrases like, “within the wider discursive structure of relations among different levels of text….” More fun than the obfuscated tone is Bérubé’s way of spurring cat-fights among his colleagues–calling them out for shoddy research or inept theories. I was sure, at any moment, he was going to scwatch their widdle wesearching eyes out!!!

That said, Bérubé still introduced me to a topic I very much much wanted to meet. (And I do thank him for an intelligent introduction, at that. I am now better informed than I was.) He provided many analytical ins where before I’d met locked doors. His example texts welcomed me into the conversation, even if his erudite style did not.

I would say this is a very good book for students learning how to do a close, critical reading of a text. And as a sort of geek-bonus, Bérubé’s endnotes are chatty and witty. In one example, Bérubé notes, “I am borrowing this argument from Janet Lyon, who will eventually want it back.”

For a very touching initiation into the topic of disability its tangible link to literature, I suggest Lauren Davis’ “Reading Through Trauma: How Story Helped Us Navigate Through Challenging Days.”