You’ve got to read this new book by Francine Prose – and here’s why. The woman knows whereof she speaks ... Prose’s brain is no ordinary brain; her passion for the arts primarily but not exclusively literature – is no ordinary passion ... In each chapter, Prose curates her curation, telling us not only which books and authors to look at, but where in each of them to look for the choicest, most telling views ... Like the works it profiles, What to Read and Why has its flaws. Although most of her commentary is stunningly original, Prose sometimes tells us things we already know ... And like the works it profiles, What to Read and Why is a multi-faceted gem, appreciable on many levels.
The title of Francine Prose’s new essay collection is a bit dishonest. Or let’s say, perhaps, that it doesn’t quite constitute truth in advertising. When I picked up the book I optimistically assumed that it would be Ms. Prose’s personal manifesto: a simple account of which books she loves most, and why. But soon enough it proved to be just another critic’s collection of previously published articles, reviews, and introductions to reprints of classics, yoked together in a slightly artificial manner for publication in book form.
It would be surprising if the reading list of anyone who picks up novelist, critic and professor Francine Prose’s What to Read and Why doesn’t instantly grow exponentially ... Traversing more than a century and a half of literature, from the works of Dickens, Eliot and Balzac to the recent works of Jennifer Egan, Mohsin Hamid and Karl Ove Knausgaard, Prose’s book offers a generous serving of her wide-ranging literary enthusiasms ... What to Read and Why is a collection of love letters to the art of literature. The only impediment to devouring this book is the persistent urge to trade it for the work of one of the writers Prose so avidly praises.
An unabashed fan of reading recommends some of her favorite books ... she deftly mixes biography and critical analysis to demonstrate how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein challenges us 'to ponder the profound issues raised by the monster and by the very fact of his existence.' Prose’s love of and fascination with Great Expectations, Cousin Bette, Middlemarch, Little Women, and New Grub Street, 'so engrossing, so entertaining, so well made,' and Mansfield Park, 'arguably the greatest of Austen’s novels,' will have readers anxious to revisit these classics ... As a fine practitioner of the art of the short story, Prose feels a kind of 'messianic zeal…to make sure that (Mavis) Gallant’s work continues to be read, admired—and loved.' ... As Prose implores: 'Drop everything. Start reading. Now.'
Her thesis is simple: 'What I am writing about here are the reasons why we continue to read great books, and why we continue to care.' ... Prose’s subjects include acclaimed novels, both old and new, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach; short story writers such as Mavis Gallant and Elizabeth Taylor; and works of fiction by authors not primarily known as fiction writers, such as poet Mark Strand and photographer Diane Arbus ... Prose’s stimulating collection of essays will move readers to pick up, for the first or the 15th time, the books she so enthusiastically recommends.