How to Read Critically
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.