How to read: rethinking how to have fun with novels

Reading was once a valued pastime. If one was educated, he or she was expected to read. But reading was rapidly replaced by lazier forms of entertainment, and is now largely seen as a boring activity at best, and a painful academic chore at worst. But reading itself is not the issue: it’s the way we were taught to read that is to blame. In the coming weeks, I will review critically acclaimed novels and discuss the ideas that they explore. But to begin, let’s discuss how to read novels.

Focus

Setting
Everyone has a different reading style. Find a comfortable spot where you can still be alert, like sitting up in a comfy chair. You’re not fooling anyone (yourself included) by pretending that lying on your back holding a book above your face will allow you to last longer than a few pages.

Speed
Every reader has a natural speed. Whatever that pace is, it is controllable. I am naturally a rapid reader, but there are books that demand a slower pace. So while I might read something relatively straightforward, like Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”, at top speed, a novel richer with prose than plot, such as “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier, requires that I slow down. Your mind naturally gauges where your speed should be; it should not always be constant. If you can’t remember what happened in a chapter five minutes after you read it, or find yourself constantly rereading sentences, slow down. If you are so bored that you would rather be cleaning your grandma’s attic, speed up.

Get Sucked In
Set aside a long chunk of time to read. Every time you pick up a book, you have to orient yourself, which takes a few pages. Reading is an escape from reality. The physical world has to be temporarily suspended to make the text accessible. The reader has to allow himself to be sucked into the text and trust that the knowledge gained from the book will follow him back to real life, when it’s time to return. If a reader is aware of the page number or the clock, pleasure is lost.

Confusion

Allusions
Look them up. The 15 seconds it will take you to load Google using SwatNet plus the 30 seconds it will take you to pull up the Wikipedia page and read the first three sentences of the article combine to a measly 45-second task that will drastically improve your reading experience. Allusions transform a novel from two-dimensional to three-dimensional. The author is making a point by referring specifically to Van Gogh rather than a general artist. If you don’t know who Van Gogh is, you will miss the point.

“Big” Words
Look them up. It takes 30 seconds. This is a form of confusion that is easily resolved. Why force yourself to endure unnecessary confusion?

Strange Format
This form of confusion is slightly less easily resolved, but you have to give great authors like Faulkner a chance anyway. Don’t reject masterpieces because the layout is bizarre or because the font changes every paragraph. Insist on figuring out why the author is playing on the page that way. If your insight fails you, try another Google search! Such an obvious literary technique is bound to catch others’ attention as well, and a few have undoubtedly felt compelled to blog about it.

Characters and Plot
This is the confusion that a good reader cherishes. Characters and plot lines are supposed to be complex. If the reader naturally and instantly understands these, there is no intrigue. The allure of the novel is diminished or even demolished if it is too simple. To be clear, the idea is not to torture the reader with dramatically complex and altogether incoherent characters and plot twists; they should flow and gradually reveal themselves to the reader. But the heart of thought lies in contradictions — in two things that seem mutually exclusive becoming mutually dependent. Reading is often about learning to accept “both” as a genuine answer. Rather than being frustrated with confusing characters and plot lines, a reader should cherish them.

Analysis

Annotating
Annotate. Don’t color-code different literary devices or circle every character’s name. Do only what feels natural. I only annotate to write down ideas that I find intriguing. Or if I notice great repetition, I might note that, but I am not searching for it while I’m reading. I annotate what I happen to notice.

Thinking
While you read, you are thinking. But you’re unlikely to ever really understand a book if you don’t actively think about everything you’re reading. Dedicate two to five minutes to thinking about what you just read every time you put a book down.

Discussing
There’s a reason people join book clubs. They aren’t only for PTA moms. Discuss what you read, even with people who didn’t read the book.

Rereading
I don’t think you ever really understand a book without reading it twice. That is not to say that you can’t take a wealth of insight from a single reading, but merely that you don’t genuinely understand a book until you read it again.

Reading Taste and Level
Read what you like and read at your level. Reading is a skill, and the more you practice, the better you get. Your level will get higher, but there is a world of difference between challenging yourself and torturing yourself.

The Secret to Enjoying Reading
The real secret to enjoying reading is to read for the story. The more you read, the more you learn to naturally recognize important styles and techniques, so don’t waste time searching for them. Avid fiction readers have, at their hearts, a deep love for stories. Accept that reading fiction is about the stories, just like watching a movie, and reading will become a pleasant experience rather than an academic chore.

Next Week: “Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad.

Lanie is a first-year. You can reach her at eschles1@swarthmore.edu.

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