Bookstore, Quaint x2[Bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland. Taken by Richard Gilbert, Summer 2012.]

English professor’s bonbon delightfully blends criticism & memoir.

Reading Style: A Life in Sentences by Jenny Davidson

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson.

Francine Prose, “Close Reading” (The Atlantic)

Davidson-Reading Style

Jenny Davidson loves to read. In fact, she’s spent her entire life immersed in words as a professional reader. A professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Davidson has written four novels and two academic works. Her blog is called “Light Reading.”

In a new book, Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, she explores literature while weaving together vignettes from her two worlds of reader and critic. She likens the reading habit to a compulsion or an addiction. For fellow reading addicts, she suggests keeping a field notebook, as an ornithologist might on bird sightings, to record those sentences that “glimmer.”

Davidson debunks the “self-improvement” motive to read, calling reading “a form of intellectual play” rather than a lesson. She boils it down to the “details of language” and states firmly: “All sentences are not created equal.” She labels sentences “verbal artifacts,” believing style is everything. A person’s temperament can be discerned by sentences written, she says, adding, “a sentence is the key to the heart.” She confesses she was a “word child.”

While weighing the merits of a comma versus a colon or semicolon, she champions the comma for being less judgmental—but loathes the Oxford comma.

Perusing words on a page has transported her to other worlds. She leads the reader through qualities such as pacing and timing in a series of examples from a mix of eras: Neil Gaiman,  Jane Austen, Stephen King,  George Eliot,  Homer,  Jonathan Lethem, Montaigne,  Helen DeWitt, Samuel Johnson, and others.

She shows how certain writers can “embed the future in the past.” Some books resemble their writers’ minds, she believes, and demonstrates the role of lists in writing while discussing the memoir of Roland Barthes.

Which book transformed her sense of what could be done in language, and which novel did she hate?  She divulges those titles, yet stresses her goal is to guide the reader in how to read, not what. She does include “A Reading List” at the end though.

When Davidson discusses the genealogy of contemporary novels, she examines the “cross-pollination” of two lines of style stemming from Henry James  and Marcel Proust.  She offers thoughtful tidbits, such as the “late” style of James being attributed to his habit of dictating rather than writing by hand, thus creating an oral form. Not all her examples are from fiction, as she draws from Svetlana Alexievich’s  Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster in deliberating a writer’s role enabling acts of witness as opposed to the creation of beautiful sentences.

[Jenny Davidson.]

[Jenny Davidson.]

Davidson quotes extensively from various works to illustrate her points. At times it was hard to tell just where the quoted material ended and her own thoughts took up again, which is more a design issue than the fault of the author.

Reading Style is a collection of lectures from a course Davidson taught called “On Style.” Consequently, some of the sections are aimed at scholars, but others are rich with heartfelt reminiscences of pages turned and sentences consumed. In mixing both academic and lay insights, she creates an interesting mashup of genres—literary criticism with memoir.

Davidson likens her book to a box of chocolates, which the cover art illustrates. She offers readers a sampling of the sentences she has loved in her reading life. She looks for their “chewy” quality experienced through both mouth and ear. She herself prefers “words grounded in the mouth.”

Indeed, like a box of chocolates, there’s a little something for everyone in this book.

Tankard, Lanie

[Lanie Tankard.]

Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.



  • Richard says:

    Lanie, this looks like a great summer read. I do wonder, however, at her hatred of the Oxford comma. That’s heretical for an English professor, to say the least. Can you elaborate?

  • Thanks Lanie (and Richard) for bringing a thoughtful-sounding and possibly quite illuminating book to the forefront. And I too am curious about the Oxford comma, only I haven’t a clue what it is–can you give a hint? How long has Davidson been teaching, do you know?

    • Richard says:

      Maybe you know it as the serial comma, for three items in a series: He picked up eggs, milk, and bread.

      • Ah, yes, thank you Richard (and Sharon). Well (I somewhat haughtily reply to Jenny’s preference against the “Oxford comma”)–hrummph!–I was taught it was simply good style to have such a comma in place, and that it was preferable to doing without, not only for the sake of stylistic clarity, but because for a less professional reason, it indicates a “breath pause” as well (that is, I was taught to ignore the breath pause as a reason on its own for good style, but when it backs up another more cogent reason, you can take it into consideration). But why quibble, when it sounds like her whole book is very fascinating. I look forward to reading it.

  • Richard, thank you for posting this tantalizing review. I can’t wait to get my eyes on this book. Shadow, the Oxford comma is that optional last one before the and in a list of three or more items in a sentence. Oxford style demands using it. Casual usage skips it. By one of those odd quirks of fate, it came up in an online conversation a couple of days ago, so it’s fresh in my mind. But I’m also curious to know why she hates it.

    • Richard says:

      Me too, Sharon. I expect Lanie will inform us soon. For the record, I LOVE the serial comma! Maybe because or despite of not being able to use it in my years in daily journalism: it violates Associated Press “style.”

      • Richard says:

        By the way, see my short post on the Oxford comma:

        Or my review of Ragtime, which successfully eschews them:

        • I’ll be chuckling over that inspired graphic for days. It’s a great reminder to have a few other people read our work with fresh eyes. The author of that first sentence is unlikely to catch the humor.

          I forgot why I was reading your Ragtime review, and did not notice the lack of any commas, Oxford or otherwise. My up-close-and-personal experience with Oxford commas came during the edit stage of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing. Both editor and publisher were adamant about the use of that final comma (I only learned the Oxford label a few days ago). That was not a battle I wished to fight, so in they went, and that became my accustomed style. I’m finding it cumbersome and cluttered these days.

          • Richard says:

            To each her own, Sharon. I have issues around this comma. On the one hand, I want to be secure enough to not use it when it’s not necessary rhythmically, by my ear, for meaning. On the other, I battle my inner (outer?) conformist and lose; plus, given years in daily journalism, it feels actually defiant still to use it! Like I say, I have issues . . .

  • LanieTankard says:

    Re the Oxford Comma: Davidson states “I am vehemently con” in an aside at the beginning of Chapter 9, “The Ideal Bookshelf” (p. 134) but doesn’t say why. And herein lies one dilemma in collecting a series of lectures or essays presented separately into a whole flowing unit in a book. In a follow-up Q&A after her lecture, Davidson may have been asked and answered, but on the printed page a reader is left wondering her reasons. As a critic, I should have addressed this point in the review. Mea culpa.

    If you click on the author’s highlighted name at the beginning of this review, you’ll find her profile:

    Here is an interview with her about the book:

    And here’s another view of the serial comma:

    (And for the record, I’m a lifelong Oxford Comma fangirl!)

  • LanieTankard says:

    And speaking of commas, I should have inserted one after “(p. 134)” in my comment above….

  • I should have given a fuller explanation of my prejudice! The rational-sounding argument against the Oxford comma: it is rarely necessary for clarity, and on the infrequent occasion that something genuinely ambiguous or misleading would result from its omission, it’s easy enough to tweak the sentence to avoid. The true argument, for me, though, is that it aesthetically offends me – the Oxford comma is like a claw-footed hammer smashing its way through the sentence, it reminds me of seeing a really beautiful iced cake with a huge gash in it!

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