Book Review: The Reader Over Your Shoulder

Title: The Reader Over Your Shoulder


Author: Robert Graves and Alan Hodge


Date: 1947 ( U.K. ), 1979 ( U.S. )


Publisher: J. Cape ( U.K. ), Vintage / Random House ( U.S. )


ISBN: 0-394-72936-6


Length: 290 pages


Quote: “The general European view is that English is an illogical,chaotic language, unsuited for clear thinking.”


Any language Robert Graves used, I suspect, would have been suited for clear thinking. That was the kind of thinking he did. Despite a certain confusion in his formative years, as described in Goodbye to All That, and in his opinions, and then in his dotage when he tried to fill the gap in his spiritual experience with narcotics, he was a very logical thinker. The White Goddess is a work of imagination, a brilliant piece of historical fiction, but, like twentieth-century interpretations of Darwinian thought, it has often been received as fact merely because it’s logical and coherent.


This makes Graves a good sort of reader to imagine having over your shoulder…if you can imagine him as the middle-aged scholar who wrote The Greek Myths and Goodbye to All That, and perhaps other books you might have been required to read if you were far enough along in school before Graves started experimenting with mushrooms and was relegated to the drug subculture. I’m not familiar with Alan Hodge’s writing, but the blurb on the jacket hails him as another master of English prose; Graves certainly was one, and Hodge’s contribution to The Reader Over Your Shoulder does not bring the book below Graves’ standard.


There are two separate versions of The Reader Over Your Shoulder. The 1947 version was “Revised & Abridged by the Authors.” The 1943 version was published simultaneously in the U.S. by Macmillan, and the 1947 edition was, for copyright reasons, not made available in the U.S. until 1979.


The book has two parts. Both are seriously written for use as a textbook or reference work; both also diagnose and correct bad sentences, often taken from the work of excellent writers, in a drily amusing, attention-catching way. The first 175 pages explain 41 rules by which the authors suggest checking one’s own writing; the last 115 pages of “Examinations and Fair Copies” apply these rules to some of the best contemporary writers, including T.S. Eliot, James Jeans, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells. The selections of bad sentences written by excellent writers naturally tend to be newspaper pieces, so along with smiles and chuckles as a bonus, readers also get a good deal of information about the World War.


Every writer who is familiar with the basics of grammar and vocabulary, who can crank out legible articles on a deadline and aspires to greatness when working on a book, should read The Reader Over Your Shoulder.

This book has gone into the collector price range…not the first time I’ve seen something I’ve offered to local shoppers for $1 on sale online for prices that start at $50. To buy it from me online will cost $40 per book + $5 per package, even though it’s not a Fair Trade Book…might as well throw in Goodbye to All That, of which, local readers should be pleased to know, I have the edition that starts at $66 on Amazon, and the copy I have will (when I put it up for sale) be considerably cheaper locally. Online readers will get a cheaper edition.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Reader Over Your Shoulder”

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