Chapter 44: HOW TO READ LITERATURE
What are some special ways to read literature
before writing to it?
How to Read Literature Critically
Reading a Poem
or Brief Short Story
Previewing, Skimming, & Speed
See also the more general chapter
"How to Read Texts."
This chapter discusses several ways in which you can
read literature. These include critical reading, reading of very short
literary works, and the use of previewing. And if you are in the
undesirable circumstance of not having allowed yourself enough time to read a
work of literature, then rather than do nothing at all, it is better to at least
review it so you gain something from it: this chapter describes briefly how to
skim and speed read it.
Read Literature Critically
What is critical reading of literature?
Critical reading of literature is reading for
academic or professional purposes--to analyze, review or argue about it.
Critical reading of literature is not reading it just for pleasure, though some
people are capable of doing both at the same time. Critical reading of
literature usually means that in addition to understanding and enjoying a story,
poem, play, or other literary form, you also are studying it so that you can
write a paper or make a presentation about it. Often, at the college
level, this means writing a paper for an English class.
How is it done? When
a person reads literature on his or her own, she usually just simply
dives into it and enjoys it. However, critical reading of
literature is different. You need to consider not just the story
itself, but also
how the author constructed it
how additional meanings/interpretations may exist in it
There are several ways to accomplish this. The more you use, the better:
Reading to Prepare for Writing
Read your assigned literary text once for
pleasure, and then read it a second time while you take notes.
Write notes in the margins as you read, or write
them on a separate piece of paper, keeping track of the page numbers.
Preferably, you either own or have made a copy of your text so that you can
write in the margins, draw lines under key passages, draw lines between and/or
around key parts, and use other note-taking devices to break down the text
into its parts and significant points.
Your notes may contain your initial (and/or later)
reactions--how specific events, characters, and other descriptions make you
feel and what they make you think. It is good, during your first reading
of your text, to cultivate at least this method if you are using no other
system of note-taking during this first reading.
Your notes may also (or instead) contain
references to structure: the steps of the plot, the main characters and their
nature, possible symbols, the setting and changes of scenes, significant
descriptions or descriptive passages, and other elements of literature (for a
list of the elements of literature, see "Writing
an Analysis of Literature."
If you know how to apply one or more theories to
literature (see "Writing
an Interpretive Thesis"), then you may also (or instead) wish as you read
to take notes about places in the text that you could interpret in one or more
ways. One simple way to start an interpretive reading is to simply take
notes about how a specific group of people who are very different from you
would perceive the text at significant points: e.g., how might people who
believe in a philosophy of life, education, politics, or religion very
different from your own perceive the text and react to (or even misunderstand)
its meanings? Interpreting a text in this way helps your develop an
academic way of seeing the text: from a viewpoint above your own that includes
more than just your own feelings and thoughts.
Engage in additional critical reading simply by
discussing with one or more other people what you have read, your similarities
and differences of response to it, what you liked best and least about
characters, setting, plot, scenes, symbols, etc. The more ways in which
you can process a text, the more you will actively understand and remember it,
and discussion is an important tool of both understanding and remembering.
Once you have read a literary text critically, you are ready to start writing a
paper responding to it. This section of CollegeWriting.info
offers chapters on several ways to write to literature. If your
instructor rather would have you write about a literary text using a more
traditional method of composition and rhetoric--for example, some kind of thesis
or related argument about it--you may prefer to read a chapter in one of two
other sections in this online textbook: "Responding
to Expository Readings" or "Arguing."
However, if your instructor specifically wants you to write a type of literary
paper such as a
literary analysis, an
literary thesis, or a
critical review of
literature, this is the correct section of CollegeWriting.info
to study and use.
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Reading a Poem or
Brief Short Story
First, you should know that verbal, word-by-word
method of reading is entirely appropriate and even required for reading poetry,
no matter how long a poem or a set of poems might be. Poetry is a spoken
art form: it requires you to hear the sounds and rhythms of the words, phrases,
and lines as well as to picture the images and understand the ideas.
For this reason, the best method of reading poetry
is to literally read it aloud--to yourself or to a friend. In addition,
you should do so at least three times: the first time is a preview, the second
time is a look at the specific contents, and the third time is to understand the
contents better and to start fixing specific descriptions, poetic patterns,
images, and symbols in your mind. In truth, the majority of people who
enjoy poetry or read it in their profession--and both literary scholars and
casual poetry lovers are here included--make sure they read a poem at least
three times and often more. If you are a student reading a poem for course
discussion or writing, you may want to read it much more.
Brief short stories should be read in the same way.
Many people accomplish this by reading stories to each other aloud. This
is an excellent technique to pursue in study groups. It also can be very
helpful to read a brief short story aloud to yourself. The very process of
enunciating the words and phrases not only moves the sounds
through a different part of your brain than if you are reading silently;
moreover--and more importantly--you are much more likely to hear them the way
the author wrote them and heard them him or herself.
These two events combined are very powerful: the additional
processing in your brain (beyond merely reading the words silently) makes it
much more likely that you will remember what you have read, and hearing them as
did the author means you are more likely to perceive the text as the author
wanted it to be heard and read. Both of these events together place you in
a strong and unique position to better discuss and write about the text in your
In addition, if you are to write or speak in class
about specific elements of the text--especially those you quote--it is best to
read these aloud to yourself several times. This insures not only that you
understand them correctly but also that you are knowledgeable about their
nuances--the more subtle or hidden meanings, feelings, tones, images, and/or
symbols that may surround or be a part of them. Literary analysis and
interpretation is the opposite of business or scientific writing in this
respect: in the latter, you need to ignore minor feelings and imagination
concerning your subject; however, in literary analysis and interpretation, you
want to consider all such subtle feelings and imagination, for you may be able
to propose ideas about passages and even about a whole text that few others have
Should you read longer literary texts--like novels
or plays--aloud? You may find that you are short on time, which is one
good reason not to. However, reading longer works out loud usually is just
as helpful and potentially meaningful as reading shorter works. In fact,
often, the best method of reading literary works both short and long is to use
several very different reading techniques: a quick skimming for organization, a
longer silent reading (while taking initial notes), and an even longer reading
aloud (while adding more notes). Using these techniques will help you
remember the work much better, understand it much more deeply, and give you more
material about which to write.
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Previewing, Skimming, & Speed Reading
How can you read literature more quickly?
One of the great problems of reading literature is that most
people read aloud in their heads--much as their parents read to them when they
were growing up. Is this how you read? How are you reading this text
right now--is their a small, silent "voice" in your head that reads each word,
word by word? If so, you may wonder what other way there is to read.
There is another way, and it can dramatically increase how quickly you
can read. It is called "speed reading." It is a visual form of
Speed reading, according to those who are strong
supporters of it, claim that a person is more likely to remember details in a
story by reading it faster. This is because the person has a better
picture of the whole: of how the details on each page fit together on the page
and in the chapter. Because of this, according to supporters of this
system of reading, previewing a novel or story also is helpful: looking over key
parts of a story briefly, before really reading the story, increases
comprehension dramatically. The following information details how to
preview, skim, and then speed read a longer text (such as a long story or a
novel). These steps also are described in this textbook's chapter called
to Read Texts"
in the section called "Responding to Readings":
How should you preview and skim a literary text? How
should a person start reading? The least productive way is to dive in and
start at the beginning. If you take a little bit of extra time to start by
previewing and skimming--five to ten minutes for an essay, or twenty to sixty
minutes for a book--you will save time in the long run and dramatically increase
your comprehension at the very beginning of reading.
Previewing and skimming saved my grade average in a
big way in school. Here is a story (from the "How
to Read Texts" chapter) about one
course in which this happened dramatically. It happened when I was in
graduate school. I was required to take a 600/6000-level graduate
research-writing course. The instructor was the chair of the English
Department, his doctoral dissertation had been a book-length manuscript on
Charles Dickens, and he assigned us one Charles Dickens novel per week to read
and to discuss every Wednesday evening for three hours. Dickens' famous
A Christmas Carol, with Tiny Tim and Scrooge, is one of the author's
shortest books. Most of them in paperback are six to twelve hundred pages
long. The first two weeks, I spent about thirty hours per week reading the
first two novels. I had time for nothing else, it seemed. By the
fourth week, I discovered that Dickens had written his novels in such a way that
they could easily be skimmed. I began applying a rich-text version of
skimming, and I read Cliff's Notes for an hour or two each week. The
result was that I spent about eight to ten hours each week--a third as much as
before--and was one of only two students who continued the discussion of the
week's novel with my instructor throughout the whole evening for all ten weeks
of the course.
Use the following steps for previewing and skimming
book-length literature. If you are reading a shorter work, such as a story
or one-act play, skip to step "4."
Steps of Previewing and Skimming a Literary Text
Cover or jacket:
Read any descriptions or blurbs you can find about the book on the
back or inside or it or on the book's cover jacket, and consider the
possible meaning of the title of the book.
If the book has a short introductory page or chapter, read it.
First and last pages:
Read the first page or two of the first chapter, and the last page
or two of the last chapter. This will tell you more precisely
what the book is about.
Chapter beginnings and endings:
Read the first and last paragraph of each chapter in the book.
Glance at the graphics (pictures, diagrams, etc.). (If you are
examining a story, one-act play, or long poem rather than a book,
think about the title of the short text; then read the introductory
and ending sections, which probably are one to several paragraphs
each, and look at illustrations, if they exist.)
Turn the pages as fast as you comfortably can, letting your fingers
and hands determine the speed at which you turn the pages.
Turn them at a steady rate, long enough to let your eyes light once,
briefly, on each page. If there are titles, subtitles, or
illustrations, you are welcome to look at them. Otherwise,
simply let your eyes catch a word or phrase somewhere on each page.
This may seem strange at first, but once you are done looking at the
entire book this way--in ten or twenty minutes--you may find
yourself surprised at how much you can guess about the contents of
the story or its characters.
For thorough previewing, read the first and/or last sentence of each
The final step, if you have time, is to actually read all of the
text, taking critical notes about it as you do so. You almost
always will find, if you have previewed and skimmed your literary
work first, that actually reading it word for word is easier, the
notes you write are better, and your understanding of its deeper
meanings is significantly better.
It is best, of course, to allow enough time to fully
read a text without skimming. However, if you must skim, you may find it
tempting--as you think and write notes about the contents--to stop skimming and
read some paragraphs in more depth. This is an excellent technique--doing
some skim-reading and some full reading--if you have the time. However, if
your time is severely limited and you must choose, you may find it more
practical to skim-read the entire document than to read only a part of it.
Whichever method you choose, critical reading--thinking and writing notes about
it--remains a necessary skill for full engagement of the text.
What is "speed reading"? Speed
reading means a reading of every phrase in a text,
without skipping any parts of it, but in a much faster fashion than normal or
average. Speed reading is a skill that requires practice. However,
it is a very useful skill, for it can save many hours of time. The way
speed reading works is that is transforms reading into a visual process only.
The great majority of people read with a mixed visual and oral process.
The visual part of it is the seeing of the letters on the page; at that point,
most of the time, most people then "read" the words they see in their heads, as
if reading aloud quietly to themselves. Most people's reading speed thus
is limited to the speed with which they can "talk" fluently inside their heads.
This is why most people can't read faster than twenty to forty pages per hour
(or roughly one-half page per minute).
Speed reading changes the essential manner in which
a person reads. In speed reading, you read faster than you can
speak the words in your head. How is this accomplished? You learn to
see the words--and only see them--rather than to turn them into a running
monologue in your head. You do this by starting with one of the oldest
reading habits in the world--a habit, in fact, that many early-elementary
teachers try to prevent: you use your finger to read.
Does speed reading exclude other forms of reading? It doesn't. In
fact, you can move back and forth between speed reading and normal reading, if
this is what you want to do, or even between speed reading and skimming.
However, you should try to plan enough time to read critically as you speed
read. As a result, in good speed reading (as in good normal reading),
there may be frequent starting and stopping so that you may respond to the text
by writing notes. The most important element to remember in terms of the
skill itself is that you can plan your method of reading (for example, by how
many pages or paragraphs per hour you must read) according to how much time you
have. However, the most important element to remember in terms of the
content--of the assignment's meaning and purpose--is to plan your homework time
so that even if you speed read, you have time to read critically.
For more on close reading and critical reading in
3. How to Think & Read in College." For more specifically on
literature and writing to it, see
Literature, Reading, & Writing."
To see how to speed read, go to the chapter called "How
to Read Texts"
and see its part called "Steps
of Speed Reading."
writing to literature is easier and of higher
quality if you read closely, critically, and thoughtfully, taking notes as you
read or very soon after each reading, as this chapter has described. This
chapter also has provided techniques for helping you if you haven't allowed
enough time to read the assignment. However, if you want to get better
grades on literature papers--and, most important, learn how to think more
deeply, critically, and enjoyably about literature--then allowing plenty of time
for reading is of first importance. Your writing can then develop after
that with much more confidence and pleasure.
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