A reader on the crowd-sourcing platform Quora asked a question about how to deepen their reading practices and read beyond just mere plot. Here’s a post I made in reply that provided some hints and strategies for deepening one’s reading practice and becoming more profoundly engaged with the literary world. ((Quora is top-heavy with tech-focused people, so I oriented my thoughts around technology examples.))
Here are some strategies used by English majors, as well as active readers.
Write down ideas, and phrases that are meaningful to you, and try to describe how they impact your life. This will help you to understand yourself and literature on a deeper level. Writers and active readers often refer to this type of book as a “commonplace book” because it is a special name for a scrapbook or set of notations about your reading.
2. Read beyond plot.
There are many books out there that have a very thin plot, but instead focus on character development language and big ideas. Read some of these and you’ll begin to see the possibilities of literature beyond plot. Toni Morrison. Cormac McCarthy, Sylvia Plath, Ray Bradbury all use language and metaphor to make points that can’t really be represented in a straightforward plot. Read Borges. Read Kafka.
Read again books that have been meaningful to you, and look for other meanings that you missed the first time around, or structural items that strike your fancy. If you are an astute reader, every time you re-read a book, you’ll notice new and different things. (For years, Hoffman would re-read Lord of the Rings for example. That book has metaphorical layers miles deep, and it’s not just a simple story about a hobbit.)
4. Read across genres.
Today, we compartmentalize books into “genre” categories: science-fiction, literary fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery and children’s books. These are publishing categories designed for effective marketing — they have nothing to do with the value or the meaning that is found between the covers. Would you let some junior marketing flunky tell you what to read? I didn’t think so. So don’t allow yourself to be constrained into one genre or type of reading. If you’re reading all science-fiction, read some romance. If you’re reading all literary fiction, read some fantasy. If you’re reading all fantasy, then go read some crime novels. If you only read romance, read a horror novel. It will be challenging to read outside your chosen genre, and you might not like it at first. That’s kind of the point. Find works that help you grow as a reader and expose you to new ways of storytelling. Again, these are arbitrary categories, and any great work will end up not categorized in the minds of readers like you.
5. Challenge yourself.
Read books that are classics, that do not fit into your typical modern marketing genres. Read a book by Dickens (I recommend A Tale of Two Cities). Read poetry by John Milton (Paradise Lost). Read Dante. Read some Chaucer. Read Rudyard Kipling (Kim is a great read). Read Plato (his work is surprisingly readable, even now!). Read Louisa May Alcott. Read George Eliot or Jane Austen. The reason to read these classic writers is that their vocabulary and perspective will open your eyes to new possibilities. Reading older works will also teach you that human beings speak to each other across centuries, and the same questions recur, time and again. I have a friend who was saved from suicide by reading a philosopher… who wrote in the 1500s. Writing always communicates, across time, across space, and across different experiences.
6. Keep challenging yourself.
Read writers that are not of your race or gender. Read Langston Hughes, Maxine Hong Kingston, Octavia Butler, and Salman Rushdie. Read Radclyffe Hall. Read Samuel R. Delaney. Read William Burroughs. Read Sandra Cisneros. Read Katie Kitamura. Read Justin Chin. Read Min Jin Lee. Read Christine Hyung-Oak Lee. Read Nicola Griffith. Read Junot Díaz. Reading these writers teaches you about the human experience, and that it might be broader, richer and deeper than your experience (or my shallow pool of recommendations). If you are in a reading rut, and are only recalling plot, you’re reading at a low level, and reading writers who challenge cultural and gender assumptions can break you out of that mindset.
7. Engage with other readers.
Find a book group or book discussion group at a bookstore or other local venue. Read a book together, and understand that other people have different perspectives on the same books that you’ve read. Their perspectives will enrich your reading.
Try your hand at a short story or poem. Even if you’re terrible – especially if you are terrible –this activity will help you understand some of the decisions that go into crafting a piece of prose or poetry. You can begin to see the skeleton underneath the flesh of the words.
9. Read critics.
Read what other people have to say about contemporary writing. By doing this, you are entering a decades long (sometimes centuries long) conversation about a piece of writing, a book series, or the intentions of a writer.
10. Write your own thoughts down and share them.
If you are brave, you can even add your own voice to this critical conversation. Keep in mind that reading a book critic and engaging with them is to be one yourself, so your opinion should be factually supported, and should be substantive. Be willing to engage thoughtfully with people who disagree with you. Find a rationale for your ideas. Most online argumentation today is shallow raw opinion without deep thinking. Most people who write seriously about books do the opposite: they go deep and look for meaningful interactions with big ideas. Be worthy of this conversation.
A literary update from NedNote.com
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