Book Reviews

Sunday Salon: Becoming better readers

sundaysalonLast week’s Sunday Salon was about the experience of acquiring books to read – and the merits of browsing randomly for interesting novels versus searching for ones to tick off our TBR lists. This week, an email from the Writers and Artists Team at Bloomsbury Publishing got me thinking about the experience of actually reading .

A  quick trawl through the blogosphere shows how practices and habits differ. Some people seem to be serial readers, actively seeking out the next title from their favourite author or the next that features the same central character. Some read according to categories (historical fiction, classics, fantasy etc). Then there are those who read multiple texts in parallel and those who  prefer to read only one at a time.

According to the Writers and Artists Team, whichever approach we choose to take, if we want to be serious readers then we have to engage actively with the text. In other words we have to:

read with focus, read with awareness and read effectively.

By that they mean looking beyond the basic plot and storyline and being attentive more to the construction of the text. They recommend five steps that anyone who wants to hone their skills as readers, should consider when reading a novel:

  1. Setting – where and when is it set? How does the author convey the setting? Which senses are being used?
  2. Perspective – who is telling the story? Are they a reliable narrator? How does their relationship to the story affect the way it is presented to the reader?
  3. Character – who are the key characters? What are we explicitly told about each character and what are we subtly shown? Focusing on the key characters, what are their motivations? What obstacles do they face?
  4. Structure – does the story unfold linearly or does it jump about in time? How does this affect our understanding of the events? Mark the points of crises, tension, climax and the final dénouement.
  5. Style – how are the sentences constructed? Are they short and punchy or long and carefully embellished? How does this impact on the pace?

None of these are particularly earth shattering pieces of advice. They likely appear in all good school text books on literary analysis. But they are useful starting points. I’ve found David Lodge’s  The Art of Fiction
to be a more detailed guide , particularly the sections dealing with techniques such as showing and telling, point of view, and time-shifting.

Having said that, I’ve come to realise this week that I never consciously think about any of this when I am reading. Most likely  I have missed a lot of the richness of meaning as a result. So I’m making a mental note to think more about what I’m reading – it might mean slowing down the pace at which I read but that’s ok. I’m not in a race…..


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

10 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Becoming better readers

  • This is great advice. I don’t always think through books this way…to be honest, not all of them deserve thinking so deeply about them. But, I would like to systematically think through these points when I am reading more serious novels.

  • I agree completely and it depends on the book. Some I want to think about, savor and write about — compose my thoughts. I also love books I can fly through — for me mysteries are the genre I will most likely turn to for flight. I think writing about books is both a blessing and a curse. Writing forces me to go deeper. Often I discover what I think as I write. But I also know what it is like to go to a play and have to write about it the next day when everyone else can just go, enjoy it and go home and get a good sleep.

  • Those are some interesting points. I mostly think about structure and character when I read a book. Perspective doesn’t usually hit me unless there is something obvious or jarring about it. I think if you want to get a lot out of a book, you need to think about these things…but if you’re just looking for a quick, entertaining read, then it doesn’t matter if you pay attention does it? 🙂

    My Sunday Salon

    • That’s a fair point Rachel. If I were to read a John Grisham for example, I wouldn’t be spending much time thinking about any of these. Its the plot that keeps me interested (though I have to say his first novels were vastly superior to the more recent ones)… Now if I’m reading something more ‘meaty’ then I would probably think about some of these aspects though not in a very systematic way.

  • I worked as a journalist at a small paper and reviewed plays (and some books) as part of my job. I quickly tired of writing what I thought of as cookbook reviews — a little bit of plot summary followed by a short analysis of actors, directors, designers, set, etc., — though I knew I could always pound one of these out in a couple of hours, and it would be just fine.
    I had previously taught literature so analytical terms and thinking came easily.
    As I strove to write more interesting responses, I became interested in questions such as:
    –What question is this production asking me — and that could be something like how is the set functioning to underscore the theme? Why is one character so much more memorable than the others? Who is the audience for this? Where is the climax — and how did I miss it? Is there a second less important climax that is more interesting?
    –What is the structure and how does the structure supported the work and the theme. Does the writer construct, knit, tat, dump, erect, or flow a river of words? How do subplots underscore or harmonize with the main plot?
    –What choices is the writer making. Why did the writer do this here?
    –Finally I became interested in what it felt like to watch or read a work. What metaphor serves — like being in a car that’s out of control, like piecing a puzzle. Here I recognize that the construction of the book or play is different from the experience of reading it or seeing it.

    • I’m also an ex journalist though spent my time covering crime, industrial news and local politics with the odd sporting fixture assignment thrown in (which I hated). Those questions of yours must have made your reviews far more interesting Barbara than the usual stuff (I liked your descriptor of cookbook reviews).

  • Interesting. As you say, not earth-shattering advice, but like you I tend not to actively think about those things while reading, saving analysis for when I write up my review afterward. I’ve heard good things about that David Lodge book before. Think I might hunt it down.

    • I recommend the Lodge book – very accessible but what I also particularly liked is the way he gives examples from specific novels so you can see the technique in action

    • Same here Laurel – the act of putting thoughts into the public arena focused my mind enormously, especially when there are so many other bloggers writing such insightful comments.


We're all friends here. Come and join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: