Analyzing Books Does Not Have to Ruin The Fun

Discussion Post

Analyzing Books Discussion

Credit: Thought Catalog – Unsplash

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.

49 thoughts on “Analyzing Books Does Not Have to Ruin The Fun

  1. Adam says:

    While I know many who prefer to simply experience a story and leave it at that, I like to discuss. It’s fun to consider the whys behind my opinions, to truly see the depth and complexity of a story, which I might miss if I simply breezed through it. And I really enjoy hearing what others make of it. Often, through discussion with others, I learn new ways to interpret the story, which adds even greater depth. Like music, the art itself is a springboard from which we can launch ourselves onto any number of interesting thoughts and ideas, actively engaging the work, instead of passively absorbing it.
    But first and foremost I agree that there is no wrong way, and to each their own. I think one of the greatest virtues of art is how everyone can find their own personal answer, without worrying about “right” or “wrong”.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Exactly! Discussing books makes me enjoy them more because I can see details I would have otherwise missed! It’s always cool to learn what someone else thought of a book because often their perspective is one I might not have considered otherwise.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Adam says:

        I think it’s a shame more people don’t tale advantage of comments as a means of dialogue.
        I know many read reviews to decide whether or not to check out a story, but I often read reviews of stories I’ve already finished, to compare my thoughts with those of others.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Yes, I think discussion in the comments can be very rewarding! I do think, however, that things have changed in the book blogosphere over the years. I am seeing fewer discussion posts and less interaction in the comments. I think people are afraid they’ll be attacked for saying the “wrong” thing, reading the “wrong” books, or enjoying a book they “shouldn’t have” so they just keep quiet now or simply agree with each other. There’s a sense that if you don’t agree with everything everyone else is saying, you’re being aggressive.

          Maybe things will change and we’ll have polite discussions again in the future. In the meantime, I can’t say I blame the people who prefer to keep their heads down. Briana and I have been attacked a few times over the years for what I thought were truly innocuous posts–nothing controversial–and it was a huge time suck trying to control it, not to mention the emotional toll. I can imagine younger bloggers in particular don’t want to experience that.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Adam says:

            I agree. There is an art to “politely disagreeing”, and it’s not always easy, particularly when we truly love something, and feel like it’s being attacked. I know I work at it, and there are times where I feel like I can’t reply to something without re-expressing a sentiment of “I disagree”, and in the process, come off as antagonistic.
            It’s particularly challenging in an online environment, where we don’t necessarily know much about each other, or the vocal tone in which the author of the comments is expressing them.
            It also doesn’t help that underneath it all, I suspect many of us are secretly very nervous/anxious, and more than a little sensitive, though I think those are also often necessary attributes for an artist wishing to create.
            Still, it is both reaffirming and comforting to read sentiments that echo my own. The classic “I’m not the only one” can often help others to feel more comfortable stepping out.

            Thank you for sharing.

            Like

            • Krysta says:

              Yes, I think that’s the problem. It’s so very difficult to read tone on the Internet! I try not to be funny or sarcastic because I know that people are going to read it as mean. I can’t exactly grin at them while I’m writing!

              Even so, I often feel as if my tone has been misconstrued. Book bloggers in particular often seem to take on peppy/cheerful personas and, if you don’t write like that, I think it comes across as overly formal and maybe mean to some people. But tons of caps and exclamation points aren’t my style. Even saying, “I didn’t really enjoy that book” can be read by some as aggressive.

              Perhaps it is because we’re all really nervous and sensitive! I always tell myself that I need to relax because everyone else is probably as freaked out as I am! They just apparently do a better job at hiding it. 😉

              Liked by 1 person

            • Adam says:

              It’s definitely a process, and we all have our moments, but I think most mean well, and gradually that shines through. All of my best friends have, on one occasion or another, misunderstood or been misunderstood, but once it’s over there’s a certain relief in knowing “it will be okay”.
              The more I connect with people online the more I find that I’m far from the only one, and that’s no small comfort. 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Rosie Amber says:

    I’ve always been a bookworm, so reading, for me, has never been an issue. I enjoy how my reading and thoughts about a book have increased over the years.
    In contrast my two children currently dislike reading, some of it was due to enforced quantities of reading during primary school and the literary texts and poetry from secondary English literacy.
    They have more social distractions than I ever had which is also an influence.
    I hope in the future they will once again pick up a book for pleasure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, there are multiple studies suggesting that the Internet has changed how we read, causing us to have shorter attention spans. This is why I’m not totally on board with the drive in schools to put everything online. Just because it’s newer doesn’t mean it’s better.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. saraletourneau says:

    I swear that analyzing books while I read them is like a reflex. I can’t help it – I’m constantly thinking about the world-building, character development, the quality of the writing, themes, etc. It’s just how my brain is wired. And yet it doesn’t siphon the joy out of reading. It does mean that I rarely think a book is a five-star read. But when I do find something that has that something extra to earn that fifth star, you bet I love it to pieces. 🙂

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Exactly! I’m not sure I can read (or watch) anything without actively thinking about it! Even if I really enjoyed a story, I’ll be sitting there critiquing parts of it, recognizing that the women were all drawn in minimal clothing with their chests unnaturally jutting out, or that the pacing was off. And I can’t give book five stars if I loved if I recognize that there are these types of issues.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dennis says:

    I would argue that some books need to be analyzed in order to truly appreciate them. _Moby_Dick_ is a case in point. First readings invariably end with, “An interesting story, but why was there so much filler?” It’s only when you start to understand the book as a projection of Ishmael’s mind can you start to understand the various diversions. _Ulysses_ is another. I swore to myself not to read it again because I started to think that Joyce was just being goofy. Hugh Kenner’s books pointed me in a different direction. And the PO-MO group like David Foster Wallace and Pynchon absolutely demand some sort of analytic reflection.
    Northrop Frye, in his study of Blake, suggested that Blake’s difficult pieces were written “for enthusiasts of poetry who, like the readers of mystery stories, enjoy sitting up nights trying to find out what the mystery is.”

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I haven’t read Moby Dick or Ulysses (nor do I particularly want to, I’m afraid!), so I’ll have to defer to your expertise here! I once read an essay by David Foster Wallace, though, so hopefully my ignorance is not showing too much. 😉 I agree, though, that there are books I probably would not have enjoyed had I not analyzed them. The pacing might be slow or the story itself might seem confusing–until you start to take it apart. Then you can see what the story is doing and WHY. Once you can see how it’s working, you can also see what a masterpiece of creativity and detail the work is. But I don’t know that I’d just read through something like Dante and think, “Oh, what a entertaining story! He’s watching people get tortured! Now he’s viewing works of art! Now we’re on a trippy trip through space!” I’d probably just be confused and maybe bored.

      Like

    • Briana says:

      There are a lot of books I’ve read for class that I only really appreciated after class discussion and analysis of the book. Suddenly I realized the book was actually interesting or saying something I had missed or participating in some historical/philosophical conversation I hadn’t known much about. I know if I had read these books on my own primarily for entertainment, I probably would have thrown them aside, thinking they were very dull. And I would have been wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Reading Tounwind says:

    Great topic. I agree with you that not ever book needs to be taken into full detail, but I always try and look for the broader topics. I like to start out when I am done with a book thinking about how I felt when I was done reading and expand from there. Also, sometimes when reading I stop to research something that came up that I need to know more about.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, sometimes I like to do research, too. It can help if I know a little more about the context of the work, for instance! Good thing we have the Internet these days for quick searches!

      Like

  6. Lee says:

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    Like

      • Lee says:

        Well 1 out of 2 cats recommend your blog. Mouse loves it and purrs and massages the keyboard, but Wednesday just fell asleep! (Mouse is, admittedly, the more mature of the two. Maybe Wednesday just isn’t ready for literary criticism yet.)

        Also, you’re a very good sport. 🙂

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Honestly, it’s amazing any cat cares enough to stop napping and read my blog, so I’ll take one out of two. 😉

          I was always waiting for the day my friend’s cat sent an email to someone or left a comment on a blog. I guess, in the end, he just wasn’t as tech-savvy as Mouse!

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    This is a great discussion topic! I think as bloggers we all think about books beyond “I enjoyed it”, but it’s true that dissecting them even more in-depth can actually be quite fun. I usually like texts much more after discussing them in class because of all the different perspectives and opinions that other students add to them. Good post! x

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      True! It can be really fun and interesting to hear other perspectives on a book! I always learn so much when I get to discuss a book with someone else!

      Like

  8. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    I completely agree with you, Krysta! Reading critically is a ton of fun. However, I feel intimidated by it. I want to dig deeper into a book and its content, but I was never really trained to do this. I never really feel like I know what questions to ask, or how to dig into a text, or anything like that. This is why I love book clubs– I use the people around me as a way to help me dig deeper into a text. I’d love to learn more about some considerations for personal literary criticism. But until then, I’ll stick with what I know.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think I know what you mean! Sometimes when I approach a new work, I’m not entirely sure what to do with it. What kinds of questions do people ask themselves about Ulysses? I don’t know! I don’t typically read books like Ulysses! (Well, technically, I have not even read Ulysses. But I already know that I would be confused.) I often end up doing some Internet searches just to get an overview of what critics have said about a work so at least I have a starting point. But I think a book club would work much the same way! Except, you know, you can ask them questions and it’s hard to ask my computer screen questions. 😀

      Like

      • Dennis says:

        I can say that, for myself, it is often like a puzzle. Ulysses is always problematic, but it’s similar to Moby Dick. All of the distractions mean something. Once I’m are reasonably sure that the author is sufficiently competent to have placed such things with a purpose and the writing is such that I am willing to re-read, I start to look at the work for clues to what symbols, allusions and such there are.
        Much of it remains personal: I thought Franzen’s prose was really good, but I couldn’t get past the stories. I find it difficult to penetrate Rushdie and David Foster Wallace, but I think there is enough meat there for me to revisit them. Whether I have enough time and energy to plumb them is open to question. These books typically take a lot of time and patience and those are in short supply in my life.
        And, yes, book clubs can be fantastic ways for gaining insight.

        Like

  9. Artsyteen777 says:

    I don’t really know if analyzing or annotating mean the same thing at your school but we “annotate the text” and I just find it easier to understand when you really look deep at the writing. You had some very good points abut analyzing text, great post.
    Artsyteen

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I see annotating as a precursor to analyzing. You take notes on what you’re seeing in the text or how you’re responding to it, and then you can go back and start thinking more about you saw and why you responded in certain ways. But I think you’re right that annotation is really helpful!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Veronika Éles says:

    I do really enjoy thinking about books, and I love analyzing it in class now that I’m in university, and the teacher actually expects up to think for ourselves, even if they had a different opinion on the same subject. Before uni, though, I wasn’t a HUGE fan of lit classes, even though I did enjoy them to some extent, because most of the teachers I’ve had throughout my life have expected us to learn what was in the textbook, and that was that. Sure, my high school teacher tried to initiate discussions, but when the test came, she expected us to know the textbook answer. So, thanks to school education I’ve seen, I get why so many are sort of against analyzing books. That said, I totally agree with you! Reflecting on what you read is truly important – I feel like there’s more often than not something that can be taken away from a book, be that a classic or a YA, or whatever other title.

    Wonderful post!

    Veronika @ The Regal Critiques

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      True. A good teacher can make all the difference! I didn’t enjoy English class until I was in college because my high school classes mostly focused on reading comprehension and symbolism. True analysis didn’t come in class until later.

      Like

  11. Cas @ Lovely Paranormal Books says:

    I see positive and negative things about analyzing books. Personally, being a book reviewer only makes me love books more, however sometimes I don’t think my reviews delve deep enough into the plot as I want to keep it spoiler free. But I don’t review every book I read, and I definitely enjoy not having to write a review for some books.

    As for school reading, I haven’t had a very positive experience with that. I’ve had it three times, and two out of three hated it. For the first two, I’d say it was partially me not being open to the experience but also just not liking the book. I react badly if “forced” to read a book I have not chosen to read on my own.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I know what you mean. Sometimes I feel like I have to have spoilers to discuss a book. I add in spoiler alerts, but I could be losing readers who don’t want to be spoiled. It is a dilemma!

      I am sure many a student has experienced the boredom of reading a book they have been assigned. Somehow, being told to do something can make even fun things seem unexciting sometimes!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    I agree with you so much!! And yes, of course we can’t do rigorous analysis for every book, and for some books that would be largely pointless, but when I do get so much more out of books that I can do this for. And of course I don’t judge anyone for not being into this as I am- but I just wish some people would show the same courtesy, cos sometimes people who don’t get it see it as a waste of time (or think of it is as easy). Anyway, loved this post!!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I have noticed that people who can’t do literary analysis are dismissive of it! I think it’s because, in English, instructors seem to grade based on the perceived ability of the student. I have seen friends turn in English papers and complain about their “B’s,” but I am fairly certain that I would have received a “C” for the same work. However, in math and science, you can’t really account for the ability of the student. If the answer if 50 and you put 55, you are wrong! You don’t get a “B” for effort or for being close.

      Like

      • Dennis says:

        Yes, there is a good deal of subjectivity within the Humanities, but it also exists in the Sciences as well. Just as writing notes on the left hand side of the Blue Book can give you partial credit on essay exams, showing your work can give you partial credit on math exams. I was once given no credit on a math exam because I reproduced the proof that was in the book and not the one that the professor outlined in class. I also lost all credit on an engineering test because I mistakenly wrote the abbreviation for millimeters instead of micrometers. I am sure, in this last case, that a pet student would have gotten partial credit if not full credit.
        As for those who dismiss analysis, it’s a perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          True, there is some level of subjectivity in the sciences. I’ve seen studies suggesting math teachers unconsciously score girls lower. A lot of my instructors, however, had rules about what counted as partial credit. So many points for showing each expected step. So it at least felt a little more objective than someone staring at a paper, writing one sentence for an end comment and going, “B!”

          Like

  13. Ted says:

    ! And yes, of course we can’t do tight analytic thinking for every script, and for some scripts that would be largely wasted, but when I do develop so much more out of scripts that I can do this for.

    Like

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