X-ray Origins – The Art of X-Ray Reading

Roy Peter Clark’s The Art of X-ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature will Improve your Writing was the other direct inspiration for this blog and probably actually better at explaining how to learn from a text than Science Fiction 101 ever was. I’m borrowing pretty heavily from his terminology so far so it’s only fair that I write about how I’m doing that before we go much further.

Like Science Fiction 101, Clark has chosen some of his favorite works to analyze for our edificaiton. These range from poetry to popular songs to cookbooks to – of course – works of great literature. Luckily Clark has a sense of humor and a fresh take on the classics. This is not your high school lit class (I only wish it had been). Frankly, if you are interested in writing, or even just want to get more out of what you read, you should take a crack at this book. At least to try it. It’s hard to find a writer who discusses Buffy, Breaking Bad, and Fifty Shades of Grey with the same seriousness he uses on The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Canturbury Tales, but Clark does it all with a sense of humor and engaging wit that makes me even want to go back and re-read Moby Dick just to see if I can notice a fraction of the things he did.

Also like Science Fiction 101, The Art of X-ray Reading is something of a memoir and a collection of tales that Clark has learned from. However, unlike Silverberg, Clark does us the favor of actually sprinkling a few instructions through the text. Even better, at the end of each chapter there there are “writing lessons,” summaries of things to learn from the various texts cited in the previous chapter and writing prompts to get you started on your own.

Overall this is a far clearer explanation of how to read critically to enhance your writing. There’s a lot to learn in here. So much that I have it both in paperback and digital copies, the better to continually refer to it. We’d be here all day if I were to try to write down all I’m learning from it. So I’ll just end with a few quotes and tell you again to go read it for yourself.

  • …stay in the habit of reading your own texts aloud… (loc 404)*
  • A What narrative requires elements such as cliffhangers to propel the reader from one part to another; a How narrative, in effect, gives away the ending, or at least seems to. (loc 410)
  • Ask yourself if your work has an engine, a question that can only be answered by continuing to read the story to its end. (loc 412)
  • …how often authors choose certain kinds of spaces—the garden, the dungeon, the tower chamber, the cave—to pressurize human action. (loc 529)
  • …the Anglo-Saxon poets called it a word hoard (like a treasure chest)—drawn authentically from the experience of growing up in a certain cultural tradition. (loc 575)
  • Any word or phrase placed at the end of a sentence stabs the reader. (loc 777)
  • Find physical objects, or what Tom Wolfe describes as “status details,” that represent traits of character or reveal strengths and weaknesses, such as the hollow Bible, an emblem of the salesman’s hypocrisy. (loc 962)
  • Look for the smallest domestic details that reveal the complexities of a character’s inner life. (loc 1190)
  • Given the choice between a word in adjective or verb form, opt for the verb, (loc 1196)
  • …avoid the mistake of seeing the world from a predictable middle distance. (loc 1623)
  • Author Tom Wolfe once argued that when readers confront a short, short sentence, they treat it as the gospel truth. At the Poynter Institute we call this the “Jesus wept” effect, (loc 2088)
  • Readers will make a journey with you if you help them solve a mystery or expose a secret. (loc 2134)
  • The key to writing good sex (good anything) is original language. (loc 2318)
  • George Orwell reminds us, avoid language you are used to seeing in print. (loc 2333)
  • When suspense is resolved, there is often an opportunity for a surprise, an exploitation of the reader’s expectations of what will come next (loc 2451)
  • Mark your writing for any elements that might appeal to the ear, skin, nose, and mouth. (loc 2551)
  • …[put] the most interesting, important, or emphatic words near the end of a sentence. (loc 2801)
  • It was Kurt Vonnegut, remember, who advised writers to choose a likable character and then spend hundreds of pages doing terrible things to him to see what he’s made of. (loc 2883)

*Locations refer to the Kindle edition.

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