Help me become a better reader

For the record, I can read. I just read antagonizingly slow, but that’s a rant that will come in due time.
I would like to read on different levels. Let me explain this a bit further based on my most recent novel (I just finished book IV of the Wheel of Time) and then I will tell you what I would like to see done and ask how.

I have a visual memory and a very acute imagination. When reading the Wheel of Time, I can visualize every detail to the point that it becomes a real place in my mind. I can see Faile’s eyes lovingly hating me when I read from Perrin’s perspective. I have smiled under my shoufa as Morraine fumed over not getting through to Rand. I have seen dice leave my hand, knowing their value would be exactly what was needed for Mat to win. Again. Ask me about the Blight and I can tell you in great detail. Why? Because I have been there, if only in my mind.

In short, I live the books I read.

All this detail is great and is the main reason I stopped reading stories for 20 years and now find myself grossly ill-equipped when it comes to interpreting what the author is trying to say through and outside of the story. Several of my friends say that Lord of the Rings has a christian motif(?) throughout the novel. My high school english teacher saw religion in every poem or story. I never did ask whether the teacher could “feel” the warm breath as the horse exhaled on his hands in the crisp morning air or smell the flowers in the stupid poem we had to read about a horse in a meadow. No, he just said that it related to Christ somehow and pissed all over my response that the poem was about a horse and all its beauty. Can someone be wrong when interpretting a poem? Nevermind.

That being said, I would like to learn to read on that level as well. Are there tips on going about this? What do you look for when filtering through all the detail presented in a piece of literature and deciding that certain details are the author’s commentary on socialism and its contribution to the demise of productivity in the workplace? Does the author even intend most of what is interpreted? Or does the author write the piece and everyone else can hash it out?

I’m not a teacher or trained reader or anything, but here are some ideas.

It’s great that you can get so immersed in the story. You just need to add some skills, not get rid of the ones you have. When you’re reading, try to pull back a little and get the big picture; you’re immersing yourself in the moment without looking at the larger meaning. So, maybe you should try taking some notes at the end of every chapter, or pulling back and thinking about what just went on.

For example, if you’re reading LOTR, make some notes about what happens in every chapter (just a line or two). Write up a character list, and put in the main attributes of each person (Pippin is impulsive, Aragorn changes a lot so write out how he does that). Write down what you think Tolkein might have been trying to say about war, machinery, friendship, and other themes–try to identify some main themes he seems to be thinking about. Then, you may wish to find The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth, by Ralph C. Wood, which explains a lot about Tolkien’s faith and how it works out in LOTR.

Reading a book purely for the story-moment is fine, but you’ll miss a lot. The author of a serious work has some sort of message he’s trying to send (I can’t really speak for Jordan, but maybe he has one too). People, of course, will often read a lot into it that isn’t there and argue about it, especially about a famous classic (since their dissertations depend on coming up with something new!). When you can appreciate the writer’s message as well as the images, you’ll get more enjoyment out of it. You can argue in your head about whether you agree with this or that idea, or whether the author is doing a good job of communicating the intent of the book.

To use Tolkien as an example, he put his deep faith, his hideous experiences in WWI, his enormous love for his wife and for his friends, his feelings about nature and industry, and much else into LOTR. It enriches the reading experience to know something of what he was trying to say, and why. The ideas he put forth will then stay with you, perhaps changing your mind or your life.

For some help learning how to do this, you might try How to Read Literature Like a Professor : A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines, by Thomas C. Foster, or The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, by Susan Wise Bauer. At least one of these should be at your library. I have never read the first one, so cannot say whether it is actually entertaining. The second one does give a good introduction in how to read a book more deeply, and can be understood by anyone. Good luck and enjoy!

Find someone else to talk about the book with. Limit the discussion to the things you’re interested in learning (i.e. discussing motifs and etc.). If you start and don’t really give any concern to wheteher or not you are making any “deep” sense, you’ll eventually get to the level where you want to be.

Just make sure they’re into it as well. Don’t be critical of the other person’s, follow their train of thought as far as it will go and follow yours next.

When you’re done, have a group hug.

Seriously though, I think that’s the best method, unless you want to take some college classes.

Also, read the book a couple of times. You’d be surprised what you will come up with when everything isn’t new. As an old film teacher of mine said regarding finding new ways to shoot places that everyone knows and/or has done to death, “go there and spend so much time there that you learn every detail (and are bored stiff by being there). Then you’ll find the shots that really make the place interesting.”

Trust your gut, Greenback. As a lifelong reader, a former lit/writing teacher, and a writer, I have to say, first of all, that your way of reading is both beautiful and valid; and secondly, that your desire to read on other levels will bring you further rewards – but only if you don’t force yourself into reading in a style that doesn’t fit your sensibilities.

Dangermom and Chairman Pow have given you some useful advice already (apologies if other posts appear by the time this one posts). There are other books that helped me early on, but I won’t recommend them, because you and I are obviously of very different temperaments. (My books are crammed with notes and cross-references.)

I’ll add – don’t buy everything you hear about what a writer “meant” or “was trying to say”. As a first step, if you’re really interested in an author’s works, not just one book, I recommend reading a little about the author and his/her times (biography and history, not lit crit), reading some of the author’s letters if they are published, and reading a couple of the books that the author cites as influences. Since you read slowly, don’t try to read it all.

Read some of the fundamentals if you can – Shakespeare, the Bible, and Ben Franklin, for example. Find a good anthology of mythology. Go back and read some fairy tales again. You’ll discover your archetypes there.

Literature in English is vast. No one can read it all, much less comprehend it all. Focus on what you like. Find your passion, and, as Campbell said, follow your bliss.

Could you give an example of some of the notes you write into your books?

I’d rather not, as they wouldn’t make much sense out of context and would not be of any help to Greenback. Could be anything from “cf 67” to “sim intr bk2 Quix” to “IS 16:7” to “bullshit!” to “wow gorgeous makes Fitzgerald look like a hack!”, for example.

Wait… did I just do what I said I’d rather not do?

“Now you’re not just telling us what we want to hear, are you? Cause we just want to hear the truth.”

“Well then I guess I am telling you what you want to hear.”

“Boy, didn’t we just tell you not to tell us that?”


“Well ok then.”

Thanks all for the responses.

The idea of taking notes and/or discussing a book with others makes sense. I’ll have to find someone else who is interested in the books I read. I also have a requst in to the library for How to Read Literature Like a Professor : A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines.

I have a vacation coming in 3 days and will be sure to take a notepad along on the trip.

Finally, for the benefit of amarinth as well as myself, could you offer a little more detail on cross referencing Sample_the_Dog? Even if I don’t jump to that level right now, this thread would be useful if I could reference back to it for further techniques and information.

I’m currently reading How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. I’m really enjoying it so far and I already feel like I’m learning from it. The authors state that there are four levels of reading - elementary, inspectional, analytical and synoptical - and tells you how to build from one level to the next. They argue that schools have been remiss in properly teaching reading so you shouldn’t feel ashamed in not fully grasping everything there is to know about a book. The book can be a little dry and didactic but it’s well worth the read.

Yay! More books to read. It is sad in a way that I have not read for nearly 20 years but I am jumping back into it with both feet. This may force me to cancel my satellite package as I am not watching Discovery Civilization as much as I once was.

Well, ok.

My advice is to build on what you know. As you do this more and more, your skills will expand naturally.

As you read, when you come across something that rings a bell, either within the work or outside it, jot it down in the margin. This will require you to emerge from the flow of the book momentarily, and at first you may find it annoying to do so. But as you get used to it, the process will become less intrusive. Once you discover the joys of it, it will actually become part of the thrill of reading.

Do not highlight or underline the text itself. When you go back to re-read, your focus and interests will have shifted, and the mark-up will be distracting. You don’t want your books to look like Cpl. Klinger’s paperbacks with all the naughty bits underlined in red.

The “cf” in my “cf 67” example above indicates “compare” or “see also”. This is a useful tool to link to other pages within a book. If you start noticing themes or images recurring, start noting them. Then, as you progress, when you see more recurrences, add “cf” notes. For some highly symbol-dense books, such as Moby Dick, I even use hand-written icons, such as a small flame, at the top of the page for particularly important motifs.

Watch for images that get a lot of space, more than they seem to deserve. For instance, Melville spends a little ink describing the lantern that stays upright even as the ship lists (being suspended from an arm with a pivot). This image of the upright (righteous) flame is indicative of a certain moral and spiritual perspective that runs throughout his work, not just this novel.

When part of a story reminds you of other stories or actual events etc., note that, too. It doesn’t matter what it is – could be a psalm or a nursery rhyme. If you’re reading Faulkner, you’ll be making a lot of Biblical notes. If you’re reading Pynchon, you’ll be looking at everything from modern physics to cartoons to advertising slogans.

If you find a passage strikingly beautiful or insightful or poignant, make a note. Chances are, you’ll want to find it again, and your notes will help. I often simply put a ! by passages of this sort.

Look for wordplay. Hardly an author worth his/her salt doesn’t enjoy wordplay. For example, in Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!, Quentin’s roommate is a fellow named Shreve. Very close to shrive/shriven – to confess one’s sins, to be freed from guilt, to be administered the sacrament of reconciliation. And indeed, Quentin uses Shreve as his sounding board as he plumbs the meaning of his experiences. Shreve is a sort of confessor – although one who does calestenics while half-naked in front of an open window in winter.

Speaking of Quentin, some books practically demand that you keep notes. Faulker especially, can be difficult to follow without notes. When more than one character shares a name (Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, Garcia Marquez’s Aureliano Buendia) you gotta keep on your toes.

Look for literary cross-references.

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald locates the action in “East Egg” and “West Egg”. One can’t help but be reminded of the Big-endian/Little-endian dispute in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which a protracted war is fought over which end of a boiled egg to break first. Gives you some idea of the author’s opinion of the shallowness of that culture. But Gatsby doesn’t see it. He spends all his energy trying to become a part of that culture, simply to impress a woman he knows very little about.

In the end, when his father shows up with some of his son’s personal effects, we see parallels with the autobiography of Ben Franklin – all the rigorous self-help that supposedly should advance a man in his standing in the world. Fitzgerald is essentially putting the lie to Franklin’s ideal – no matter what he did, Gatsby could never really raise himself socially in 20th century America, at least not to that level. One must be born into that class. He dies in a doomed attempt to enter a world that’s not worth entering in the first place, and that’s part of the tragedy.

I could go on, but this post is long enough. I’ll respond to questions if you have any. Main thing – progress at your own pace, work from your own experience.

Read the important sources. If you haven’t read the Bible, read it. You can’t get all the juice from lit in English otherwise. At least read Genesis, Exodus, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, the 4 Gospels + Acts. Shakespeare’s major plays are helpful – try to see good performances of them – as are his sonnets.

Thanks Sample_the_Dog, for going into more detail.

I have already read the bible and most of Shakespeare. I don’t get to see plays the though.

A word of warning: if you are successful in your endeavor, it will be highly unlikely that you will be able to continue to enjoy Robert Jordan. I can only speak from personal experience, but the more I learned to appreciate novels on multiple levels, the more painfully aware I became that Jordan was barely able to write on a single level. The guy is simply a hack.

My own bit of advice for becoming a better reader: Cliff’s Notes. Most students use these as a substitute for reading the material, when they are meant to be used as a suplement. Obviosuly, the list of books that have Cliff’s Notes are limited (although there are Notes for Lord of the Rings), but if they’re available, pick it up as a reading companion for the book. It’s a good, basic primer on the themes, symbolism, references, and influences the author is employing. They aren’t authoritive: often as not, I’ve disagreed with their conclusions, but an interpretation that you dislike can be as valuable a tool in understanding a book as an interpretation you completely agree with. Moreso, even.

Also, unless you’re being more subtle than I’m giving you credit for, I suspect that you read “agonizingly slow”, not “antagonistically slow.” The former means you read so slowly that it is painful. The latter means that you read slowly just to piss people off.

[sub]This grammar nitpick brought to you by the fine folks at Mutual of Omaha.[/sub]

Close, but I think I said what I meant. It could mean that I read so slowly that it pisses people off (Libraries, study partners, etc). And that’s the truth. The way I understand it, antagonize can mean you piss people off without consciously intending to. Someone who lacks social skills and is considered rude by others could be said to be antagonizing the people she’s around.

I’m taking a comp lit class right now, as part of going back to school after abandoning my previous line of work.

Not knowing the age of the OP, I can only say that at 43, I read things in a very different way than when I was in college the first time. I went all over the place, tried to read classics and contemporary masters. One example, when I read Graham Greene back then, I found it boring. Now, when I’m over ripe myself, I find his writings much more enjoyable, maybe because all of them has a middle aged white guy as protagonist.

That said, I’m realizing that it’s not bad to start with Homer and skim forward. There are excellent text books to have as companions, unfortunately, I don’t think the books I have would do you much good, since they’re in Swedish by Swedish writers.

I’m up to the middle ages right now and going through Divina Comedia for my next exam. Some of the stuff I’ve been reading have been incredibly dull, but as they lay the foundation for what’s to come later, and they in turn were considered ancients text by people we consider ancient, it’s interesting to find out how it all connects. I know that when we reach Willie Shakespeare, I’m gonna appreciate him a lot more than the first time I read them, because now I’ve read the works that inspired him. The same goes for Divina Commedia. Having read Virgil puts the work by Dante in a differtent light. And having read Homer puts Virgil in a different light.

I’m realizing now that there really are no shortcuts. Then again, life ís a bit too short to be spent reading something boring, just to be able to “get” something else. YMMV, but I’m happy that this class have actually made me read the classics.

You don’t get to see the plays? Does that mean you don’t live close to a theater? If so, try renting some of the better movies of the plays, perhaps.

Also, Cliff’s Notes are now available online, enabling lame plagiarizing students to get caught more easily than ever before, but also allowing you to improve your reading right at home. :slight_smile:

I am 29 The Gaspode but, like I said in the OP, I basically stopped reading stories when I was 9. I started up again last year so now I feel really behind when it comes to my development as a reader.
There are no theatres near here dangermom. Thanks for the notes link.

I hope I didn’t come across as condescending, Greenback, is so, I apologize. It’s just that I now see that I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago (thank og), and as I’ve changed, so has my ability to find other layers in literature. Doesn’t mean deeper layers or more mature.
I can thoroughly enjoy a tv show like Buffy, because I remember what it was like in my late teens. So even if it’s marketed for an audience in high school, I can still like it. However, it’s still difficult for me to appreciate the nuances of “Driving miss Daisy”.
The age/experiences of the reader plays a significant role in how the reader will perceive a work of art. As they say: Ars longa, vita brevis