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How to Read Critically

Updated on October 7, 2012

Reading for personal gain.

As a literature major and published writer, I am often subjected to what I will put lightly as literary "snootiness", this idea that only a professor can tell you the deep meaning behind literature, or else you are somehow unprepared for a book because every motif and allegory alludes you. I am here to say this is incorrect!

Literature, great literature, is about feeling and color, it's the music you hear when you read and the time or location it takes you to. A perfect example is James Joyce's Ulysses. Arguably the most complicated and allegorical piece of literature from the 20th century. Prior to a 3 month stint in Ireland studying Irish Literature, I had read Ulysses in its entirety, once in Ireland at Trinity College in Dublin, I attended a class taught exclusively on the novel by an expert on the subject.

I am not embarrassed to say that no less than 90% of the symbolism went straight over my head, I won't ruin it for those who haven't read the book but often the actions of the characters are unknown unless put under careful analysis, the majority of it being "dirty literature" by 1920 Irish standards. I recall an amusing anecdote that the book was sold in brown paper bags like pornography in Ireland; and in the United States the book was allowed to be published because, and I'm paraphrasing, "If they're smart enough to understand the book, they can probably deal with the content."

The point is, despite being like the rest of the American public, I enjoyed the novel as story of a day in the life of Stephan Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Do not get bogged down in all the details, books are beautiful because they can be read countless times and something new reveals itself each time. Gaining a feel for the story, themes and characters, is much more important.

If you are completely frustrated or perhaps you would like to contribute to a book club or a class discussion, here are a few tips that may enlighten your reading:

  • Read the book again!

Reading a book twice is not only an excellent way to catch something you missed before, but as humans, our personal experience and point of view changes day to day and with it our connections with literature change and are given new meaning. Reading the same book at a later date may change the book, or you, dramatically

  • The Internet!

No, it's not just for cramming for the midterm or pretending to read a book you have not read. Websites like Sparknotes and Wikipedia can be useful for illuminating text, identifying characters, and noticing trends. Do not be afraid of the literary snooties! Why deprive yourself of a better understanding?

  • Read with a friend!

Heard the expression " two heads are better than one"? Cliche, yes, but its tired because its tried and true. Reading with a friend and discussing the text can be the most illuminating action in relation to literature. Not only do you hear another's interpretation, but you must identify your own, and communicate it, and finally the product of discussion, a mutual interpretation, often completely original.

  • Take a class!

Perhaps this mode of interpretation requires the most effort, but with universities and community colleges all over the United States it might be worth it to take a class on literature. Most colleges have a wide array of classes for literature, and being in a class forum setting allows multiple critiques, not to mention the advice and expertise of a trained professional.

In all, I would like to communicate that while a complete understanding of every line of a novel would be ideal, do not get frustrated and give up on a novel because it is complex or difficult. Take a few steps to illuminate, and if all else fails, read it through and take the story for what it is and what you think. After all, art is art because it is different for every audience.


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    • Alexander Brenner profile image

      Alexander Brenner 6 years ago from Laguna Hills, California

      @ Cloud

      I appreciate the comment and the support. Yes snootiness is rampant today in literary societies, especially among college students. I too believe that a reader with no literary backing can understand a piece of literature just as well as a professor.

      @ Sarah

      It is funny you say so, I recently went to a friends house and he had an entire row on his bookshelf for books he has not read, and i suspect, has not attempted to read. Personally, I try to have no more than 3 books on the hook at one time or else I begin to feel guilty


      Nice name, yes it gets annoying when people are telling you what you have missed but be sure to listen, there may be truly valuable nuggets of knowledge.


      Haha I think you caught how complicated I found that book. Yes, do not be ashamed over how much you miss, some parts are only recognizable with a deep knowledge of Dublin, even the city planning has a part in the book to the few who can map it out.


      Thank you, it is truly an honor to help students with their reading. Feel free to duplicate the article for academic purposes, by all means


      Thanks for the welcome and the kind comment, yes lit snobs are everywhere. The most important thing is to look past them and find open minded insightful people to share literature with.


      I am going to be honest, I am not familiar with the phrase but thanks so much.(assuming it is a good thing)

    • profile image

      Kevin 6 years ago

      Five well earned pennies for Alex!

    • Shadesbreath profile image

      Shadesbreath 6 years ago from California

      Spot on, on all counts. I especially like your suggestion of reading with a friend. The thing about friends is that, we usually pick our friends because how much we have in common with them. When you mention the snooty people, you're quite right (I know lots of those types), and by choosing to read with a friend you can eliminate that snooty lit snob thing. It's just two people with lots in common reading the same thing for the purpose of deciding what they think happened. It sure makes for some great conversations. Very great recommendation!

      Oh, and welcome to HubPages. :)

    • profile image

      cherie 6 years ago

      Finally a really well written article that is not only useful and informative but a joy to read. I hope Mr. Brenner writes more articles. I am a teacher and am going to make copies for my students. You get an A+

    • glassvisage profile image

      glassvisage 6 years ago from Northern California

      You make me feel better about when I read Ulysses myself... I had gone online and realized how much of the symbolism I had missed and felt like I needed to read it again! Great tips to get the most out of what you read!

    • profile image

      GregorM3ndl 6 years ago

      Finally someone is sticking to the snobs. Try reading it a few more times before telling me everything I missed or misinterpreted, people.

    • Sarah e Davis profile image

      Sarah e Davis 6 years ago from USA

      Often, today, I find a huge increasingly larger libraries, though not all are read and many read only once half a decade ago. It is nice to read a hubber that can appreciate the value of multiple readings, why, a book can become your friend.

      Good advice for readers young and old, and well written!

    • CloudExplorer profile image

      Mike Pugh 6 years ago from New York City

      Wow, I had to read this hub with extreme care, because the contents within it is definitely valuable for anyone who reads or writes. It was very well written to say the least, and goes to show that whomever authored it is a true reader themselves and surely a powerful writer.

      I never really read any book twice, but I think if I were to try that advice you gave here, it would also work wonders for me. I use to read a great deal as if it were a race of some sort, but as the years started amounting I slowed down to simply begin writing, and I agree with you in every way as you have put it here.

      I especially like that "Snootiness" part, sounds like a cool way to say some people are plain old snotty or fixed on thinking their the only ones who can observe, deliver or be given credit for something. I've always thought that credit should be given to a person no matter what position they hold, nor the title they have attained in life or what have you.

      Awesome hub here, its getting voted up, and shared by all the sharing tools I can find, your headed for a great experience in hubpages for sure. Welcome to the team and feel free to ask me anything you wish for future reference. @ Alexander

      Work on the title of this hub, and the tags it may get the numbers of viewers up, Good Luck! & Happy New Years


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