10/10/14 — HOW TO BE AN ACTIVE READER
What do you do when you read a novel? Relax, maybe, leisurely turning pages, letting the story sweep you along? If so, you’re likely reading solely for pleasure, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Reading is a lot of fun. Enjoying the story can be reward enough.
On the other hand, what if you want more than entertainment from the novels you read? Good stories have layers, offering ideas, feelings, and meanings. Even fairy tales are more than delightful yarns. Hansel and Gretel learn not to wander off into the woods alone. The three little pigs learn to build their houses with strong materials that will last. If you want to mine the stories you read for greater understanding of the world the writer has created, here are some suggestions you might consider.
Read the entire novel. I know lots of readers say if the story doesn’t grab their attention in the first chapter or even the first five pages, they stop reading. I think this is a serious mistake. Well-rounded characters often don’t reveal the most interesting sides of their personalities until well into the story. And various parts of the plot may not come together in the most meaningful way until near the end. Give them a chance. As an example, think about Sophie in William Styron’s fabulous novel Sophie’s Choice. She isn’t even introduced until forty pages into the novel and it takes the whole story to reveal exactly who she is.
Reading the entire novel includes the prologue. Prologues are controversial, but the author had a reason for putting it there, so you need to read it before you decide whether the reason is valid or not. One of my favorite novels, Empire Falls by Richard Russo, has a lengthy prologue, but it’s necessary to establish the tone and culture of the story.
Mark in the novel (if it belongs to you). As children, we were taught to respect books, which meant we weren’t allowed to dog-ear the pages, leave books open in a way that broke the spine, wrinkle pages, or mark on them. This isn’t a bad policy except if you’re going to react to what the author says and remember your reaction, you need to make notes. Edgar Allan Poe said marking in a book is the highest respect you can pay the author because it shows your differences or agreements with him or her. And that’s the point. To be an active reader you have to think about what you’re reading.
Authors reveal pieces of themselves and their world view in their novels. Do you agree or disagree with what they say? Barbara Kingsolver’s novels are sometimes described as agenda-driven, so it’s not difficult to see the point she’s making. In her most recent novel, Flight Behavior, which I reviewed on my website last month, she tackles global warming. When I was reading this book, I underlined and starred a lot of paragraphs because there was so much to consider, not just about the climate crisis but also about the universal family crisis developing among her main characters.
Talk about the novel. You don’t really absorb knowledge or ideas until you can express them in your own words. Telling someone else your reactions to the characters’ thoughts, actions, and feelings helps you realize and understand them. Also, hearing someone else’s reactions can broaden your thinking. Book clubs are great for this kind of dialogue. But if you don’t have access to a book club or a friend who reads the same books you do, you can get some of the benefits by yourself. Ask yourself questions about the book. If a readers’ guide is included in the book or on the publisher’s website, look it over. It’ll help you dig into the novel’s themes and explore the deeper meanings.
Being an active reader will make you think and possibly see the world in a different way. It may also make you more open minded. A recent study from the University of Toronto, called “Opening the Closed Mind: The Effect of Exposure to Literature on the Need for Closure,” showed that students who read short stories showed less need to reach quick conclusions and avoid ambiguity and confusion. Consequently, they were willing to consider more information before making decisions.
Most important, being an active reader will give you a deeper understanding of the stories you read. And it won’t take away any of the fun of reading.