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How to Become an Expert on Any Book Your Professor Assigns

Updated on April 23, 2017
Hemingway was notorious for jumping straight into the action.
Hemingway was notorious for jumping straight into the action. | Source

1. Identify The Main Story Arc

You'd be utterly shocked to see how many students fail to take a moment to pause and truly process the information from what they've just read. Don't take the exposition lightly! The opening pages of a book are often times the most valuable information in context of the greater story that the reader will receive for a long time. Although seemingly simple, anyone failing to recognize at least a general concept of what is happening is already at a huge disadvantage for understanding the story.

2. Treat Every Chapter As If It Was It's Own Standalone-Story

A fundamental aspect of story telling is making sure that the story being told is interesting. However, that doesn't stop even the best of us from zoning out when we feel like a chapter is pointless and dragging on; the best way to combat this feeling is to change your mindset and ask critical questions throughout. Instead of asking "How is this at all important to the main story?", instead ask "Why is the character choosing to act this way in this exact moment?". Good literary analysis is just being able to figure out what a character is feeling through all steps of their journey, and it is from that understanding that meanings of the text are fully extrapolated. Changing your focus from the macro to the micro will not only feel more fulfilling as a reader, but will greatly enhance your understanding of the characters actions.

Great Expectations is a classic example of a text littered with side plots and stories to explain the influence of multiple dynamics between characters. These are in turn woven together to build a complete story around Pip's place in society.
Great Expectations is a classic example of a text littered with side plots and stories to explain the influence of multiple dynamics between characters. These are in turn woven together to build a complete story around Pip's place in society. | Source

3. Revel In The Grey

Too many times have good students missed opportunities to contribute new ideas because they are afraid of their interpretation being so different than a well-established one that they consider it wrong.

This couldn't be further from the truth.

A big psychological wall that phases many students is that even though literature rarely has a right answer, they are coaxed into believing there is -- simply because there is a professor or expert in the field who will teach mainly one understanding. While (surprise) the best books have ambiguous, confusing moments that require the weighing of conflicting morals and ethics; the absolute worst response to this is to give into the pressure of the precedent and accept previous readings without any real understanding of how this interpretation came to be, or to doubt your own reading. The true empowerment of stories is to take a greater message or feeling from them that resonates with you on some level. Therefore you cannot be lead to a conclusion; you must determine how you feel for yourself, or else the story will have been a waste of your time. Cultivate and question your own understanding of the story, and express it! As long as you're actually reading the story and can evidence your claims, there are literally no wrong answers.

4. Know The Era Your Text Is From

Knowing even a sliver of information about the time period of the book you will be studying beforehand will give you undoubtedly the biggest advantage out of any of the other advice on this list. Having even a very general grasp of the history surrounding the issues addressed in the book will make reading, discussing, and writing about it immensely easier. This search for background knowledge could be as simple as a 3-minute YouTube video that talks about the writing movement or time of publishing, but will be invaluable to you as you dive deeper into understanding themes and commentaries within the text. It could even spark a new interest for you!

5. The Author-Character Distinction

Some writers like to be a benevolent guide through the story, acting as if they were experiencing it with you in all honesty. This just often isn't the case at the higher levels of literature. Remember that authors aren't writing from their own perspective directly, but rather through the mediums that are their characters. This is an important distinction to make, because a passage that may come off as insignificant or unimportant to the overall text; such as a moment of inner thought or noted attention to minute details, are actually very important for later on in the story or at minimum tip-offs to the personality of this character.

So what does this mean? Keep in mind that everything has a purpose. Every description, every thought and every action is meant to serve a purpose to the character or greater story. Don't give into the temptation that there isn't anything going on in the book just because world-changing action is currently in progress. Small lulls in the story are indispensable to the construction a characters motives, and the story's pacing.


6. Be Positive When You're Just Not Interested

If worst comes to worst, you know that the book you are studying just isn't something that is appealing to you. Don't get frustrated; it means you're human. Believe it or not, professors try constantly try to pick books that are interesting for their students and hold an appeal to them, but there will come a point in everyone's academic career where they are studying a text they just absolutely cannot get into. When this point comes, it is important to accept the situation, and push through using the methods listed above. Even if there isn't an emotional connection to the text you are reading, you don't need one necessarily to persevere and turn in consistently high-quality work. In fact, consistency in work is an indicator of maturity and a great student of humanities, and will surely be noted by your professors and potential employers alike. It can be frustrating, but do not let yourself think it is acceptable to mentally quit just because you don't care for this one book specifically. Grind it out, remember you'll get through the book soon, and keep up the effort, and you'll do great!

7. Don't Pressure Yourself

I get it. Deadlines can be grueling, especially for college students who have to read multiple texts concurrently, but a major factor in determining your success and affinity with the book is decided when choosing when to sit down and actually read it. Putting off reading assignments will pile up fast, and force you to be constantly stuck in a "catch-up" mentality, which would leave you feeling frustrated and always step behind in analysis. Alternatively, I've known some students who do the opposite-- and try to rush through a text in just a couple of days. This also will frustrate you in understanding, because even if you pay attention closely, you will not have any time to digest the information and let your thoughts run with it freely. The beauty of strictly pacing yourself for a book will allow you to stay on task to finish by the time you need it to be, meanwhile giving the time it takes to embrace a deeper understanding without even trying. It is a cardinal literature sin to rush, and therefore potentially ruin a perfectly good book that you might have otherwise liked; had you given yourself the time to fully appreciate it.

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    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 3 months ago from Illinois

      I think "revel in the grey" is an important thing to remember. My mother is a high school English teacher, and she gets a lot of people who plagiarize. But one thing high school students do avoiding outright copying is to lean too heavily on their sources. We don't want to hear what some scholar thinks about the assigned text, we want to hear what YOU think about it! Don't worry about your opinion being right or wrong, what really matters is if you can back up your interpretation of the text with either scholarly sources, history, or the text itself. Like with Scarlet Letter, you could say either that Pearl represents purity and innocence, or that she represents sin and its consequences, as long as you can back up your opinion by quoting the story.