How to Be Well Read by John Sutherland - book review: 'The last word in curiously pointless coffee-table books'


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In How to Be Well Read, John Sutherland explores "the many different kinds of pleasure the prose novel can give." From The Golden Ass to Gone Girl, the retired professor of English literature provides commentaries on the works which he recommends you read. Or does he? The subtitle – "A Guide to 500 Great Novels and a Handful of Literary Curiosities" – is slightly misleading. Along with Jane Austen, D H Lawrence and Jennifer Egan, there are unexpected entries for far-from-great Jeffrey Archer, Jackie Collins and E L James.

How to read it? The books are discussed in alphabetical order and, by C, I was itching to surf the index. The entry for P G Wodehouse's Carry On, Jeeves says Kazuo Ishiguro updated the literary butler in The Remains of the Day. Impatient to discover what Sutherland thinks about that novel, I skipped to R: "Ishiguro understands the English better than any novelist living." Then I was distracted by Pat Barker's Regeneration, before learning that Samuel Johnson wrote Rasselas in one week to pay for his mother's funeral.

Sutherland encourages you to read great literature, not because you should, but because it's enjoyable and could change your life. His highest praise is reserved for works which have endured, hailing Tess of the d'Urbervilles as "a little puzzle which will tease, I suspect, for as long as fiction is read." He prefers Vanity Fair to Middlemarch, and quotes his teacher, who called Thackeray's novel without a hero: "Gold in your pocket for life."

Alphabetising creates amusing juxtapositions – Candide followed by Candy ("the first work of avowed pornography to appear on the New York Times Bestseller List") – and David Foster Wallace would have appreciated appearing next to Dostoevsky. But why devote the sole entry on Wallace to his debut, The Broom of the System? Why choose Roberto Bolano's story collection, Last Evenings on Earth, over 2666? Sutherland's interpretations are consistently fresh, but some plot summaries drag. Must we approach Proust via Monty Python? And prescribing Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis for bankers "swelling the jails of the UK and US" would make sense in the unlikely event that the greedy and corrupt come to justice.

This is the third and final instalment in a series which includes Sutherland's The Lives of the Novelists. His companionable erudition is an antidote to the cyber-squall of blogs and algorithms but, although these tomes sell, how well read are they? Do they sit on coffee tables, gathering the dust of good intentions? They're well written, but for whom?