Learning to Read with George Saunders

This time two years ago, I was wrapping up the finishing touches on my thesis to complete my Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction. At the time, I thought I’d gained a deeper knowledge of what it takes to effectively write a story (a novel, a screenplay, a poem, etc.). But from a distance of two years, I look back now and think that what I really gained, was the ability to read a story more effectively.

Now, I think there is a lot of overlap between what it takes to read well and what it takes to write well, but I also think writing well is dependent on reading well. And what George Saunders does in his newest book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is help readers read better. By dissecting stories from four Russian authors, he helps us to better understand the ways a good story works. What is it about a story that compels us to keep reading? And yes, through that close reading, Saunders is subtly teaching us about writing, too – about plot, characterization, story structure.

At times, Saunders offers some insightful writerly advice based on his own journey, practices, and studies. But for me, the value of this book is really that it forces us to slow down, to read more closely, and to consider the work we’re doing as we read. And in that sense, I think Saunders achieves his goal of providing “a master class in writing, reading, and life.”

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