A Blog post
Summer Reading Tips: Two "don't"s of reading fiction
- Jun 24, 2019
- Jared Wells
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I just finished reading the classic “How To Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler, which, given the amount of time that students spend reading books for school, should be read by every student (and teacher). While I am going to do a longer write-up to review and discuss the takeaways for students, educators, and adults, I wanted to dive in to what I think might helps students right away as they dive into their summer reading assignments. (you are diving in, right?)
Adler lays out some general principles of what he calls analytic reading, and then separately discusses how to apply those principles to “imaginative literature” (novels, short stories, plays, etc). While those are valuable, he follows up with some “don’t”s that, because they are just shifts in mindset, are simple enough to apply to what you read today, and, I realize in my own experience, can have a big impact.
“Don’t try to resist the effect that a work of imaginative literature has on you.”
Be open to the experience. Recognize the possibility that the world that the author has created for you has value for you if you go into it with credulity. Try to see things through the eyes of people who live in this world. Immerse yourself into the world as fully as the characters are. Let the story trigger emotions rather than fighting or dismissing them. The more you try to empathize with the characters in the book and how the events in the book act on them, the more you’ll understand, and the more truthfully you’ll be able to criticise the book.
Another way to say this: try to feel or experience what the author intends you to feel or experience. Doing this sometimes requires asking yourself, “What does the author intend for me to feel or experience?”, which is a GREAT question to ask! Instead of “this part is boring” ask “why did the author include this part?”
Some of you will be reading “The Grapes of Wrath” this summer. What do you think that John Steinbeck intends you to feel and experience as you read the book? That’s a great question to ask yourself as you read.
“Don’t criticize fiction by the standards of truth and consistency that properly apply to communication of knowledge”
“Animal Farm? Yeah, it’s a book about talking pigs. Stupid, right?”
The author of a novel is creating a world for you. It could be completely made up (Wrinkle in Time, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter), or it could be people who could very well live in the same world that we live in (Red Badge of Courage, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Count of Monte Cristo). The point is that the world the author creates isn’t real, and really, it’s not an act of good faith to treat that as a reason to dismiss the book. Be fair to the author. Accept the world that the author has created for you, and evaluate the book based on what he DOES with the talking pigs. Or tesserects. Or magic wands.
More broadly, it also means setting aside setting aside your lack of interest in the superficial plot of the book. That is, maybe you are about to read “The Red Badge of Courage” and you say to yourself, “I don’t like books about war.” But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t value for you in this book? Do you like books about people experiencing and overcoming fear? That’s a motif you might have enjoyed in a book like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Life of Pi” Maybe in those books it was a very satisfying experience for you. So maybe you can find the same satisfaction in "The Red Badge of Courage", even if it wasn’t delivered to you in the ideal way. And maybe having it delivered to you in a different way will help you understand something you didn’t before.
These two “don’t”s, while seemingly obvious, are crucial to take into consideration, consciously, when you are going into a book you don’t want to read. I get it. When you are told to read a book you don’t want to read, it’s easy to have a negative attitude. If you do that, you're sabotaging the possibility of your understanding (and enjoying?) the book. Whatever you are reading for your English class is a book that has been enjoyed by millions of people. You can be one of those people if you shake the attitude!
By the way, here is a third “don’t” courtesy of yours truly,
Don’t wait until the last minute to read it.
When you are rushing to finish a book, it’s hard to imagine, empathize, predict, feel, or do anything that isn’t decoding words. Get started on your reading now, doing a little at a time each day. Better yet, sit down and plan out how much you are going to read every day (writing is doing). It's less stressful this way, and you have the opportunity to actually enjoy it!
Want to learn more about how to get the most out of fiction (and get a leg up on that AP English reading list?) Check out our Summer Reading for AP English workshop this summer, starting the week of July 1st!
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