I am sure we have all heard the complaints. “Why do we have to dissect the books in class? It ruins all the fun!” Or, “I do not like thinking about what I have read. It’s supposed to be entertainment!” Reading for pleasure is, of course, an admirable goal. However, the embedded assumption in these statements is that thinking about a piece of literature critically must, by default, somehow destroy its essence and suck all the joy out of reading. However, this is not a universal truth. Rather, it is the opinion of some people. I, for instance, find that engaging critically with a story typically makes me enjoy and appreciate it more, not less.
Reading a book superficially can only give me so much. I might close the pages feeling that the plot was fast-paced and exciting (or not), that the characters were likable (or not), and that the prose was beautiful (or not). If I do not begin to think about what I have read, that’s it. To me, this type of reading feels very passive and almost like it is not worth my time. I spent a few hours with a book and I will never again return to consider that world. What is the point?
This is not to say that I engage in rigorous literary analysis on every book I read. That would be quite impossible. It takes months, if not years, to research the historical context of a work, read the author’s other works, think about the work in relation to the author’s other stories as well as in relation to the other stories published at the time, etc. I would also need to read the book several times with close attention to sentence structure, recurring words, images, and ideas, and so forth. Professors barely have time do all this and it is their job!
However, I can and do think about the book beyond the thought, “I enjoyed it.” I can think about the character development and whether it seemed natural and why or why not. I can think about how the book was structured (its form, pacing, sentence structures, etc.) and think about how that affected my understanding of the story. I can think about how the story conforms to generic conventions or breaks away from them, and what that might mean. I can think about how the book is situated in its historical context and how it seems to be speaking back (or not) to other works I have read from that time. I can think about language choice, about representation, about how audiences might be receiving the work. To me, this is what really makes the book come alive. It has all these hidden depths just waiting to be explored! The enjoyment of the book thus lasts far beyond the few hours needed to read it.
Avid readers sometimes tend to assume that the sheer power of a story is enough to make everyone love it. However, this is not necessarily true. In his work, “Disliking Reading at an Early Age,” (which you can find in Falling into Theory), Gerald Graff, now an English professor, describes how his own life trajectory contradicts our assumptions about the nature of reading. He begins by describing how he could never relate or become invested in the books his father brought home for him, and how he continued to find reading difficult and unlikable even through college–until he discovered literary criticism. “It was through exposure to such critical reading and discussion over a period of time that I came to catch the literary bug, eventually choosing the vocation of teaching. This was not the way it was supposed to happen,” he writes (44). “The future teacher is initially inspired by some primary experience of a great book and only subsequently acquires the secondary, derivative skills of critical discussion….Any premature of excessive acquaintance with secondary critical discourse…is thought to be a corrupting danger, causing one to lose touch with the primary passion for literature” (44). And yet, Graff could not enjoy a book on its surface level until he had found the words to talk about it on a deeper level.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to reading. Some may find literature classes and the analysis expected of them to be torturous. Others may find that books only really come alive when they can start questioning the gender roles inscribed in their books or pondering how a certain word can change the entire meaning of a sentence. It’s that type of diversity that can help make literature so very exciting.