“…when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, those need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’ ” – Virginia Wolf
Even if I dial down the romanticisation a bit, those too who have not been able to read much so far would still have to agree with me that reading can be a delight. While a lot of us would like to read more, we often end up not doing so. Before we can answer how to read a book, it might be worthwhile to understand why we don’t read a book because definitely to answer one is to begin to understand the other.
So, why? Time could be a constraint and, let’s face it, there is intriguing content on our screens that we find easier to absorb. Therefore, the problem is not in the content but in its absorption. What could we be doing wrong? There could be two reasons. One is a fact that most of the reading that we end up doing is either online, newspapers or magazines where content written is at the highest readability level of a 14 year old. You can expect the write-ups to be, for a lack of a better word, simpler while an adult is capable of still comprehending much more. We inculcate lazy habits this way that diminish one’s capacity and many books are anyway more layered.
Another reason could be that may be we nurture a misconception about reading that it is supposed to come naturally to us as does walking or breathing. While the fact remains that reading is nothing less than an art or a skill that needs to honed and done methodically. Therefore, to begin to understand how to read books of different genres we should keep in mind a few general pointers that can further our reading experience.
Number One: Active Reading
Reading is about deriving meaning from connecting words and their context. The main difference between casual reading and actual reading is that the latter takes us into depth. Active reading is about engaging our imagination, giving us insights and helping us form judgements for which one has to be alert and perceptive. Books imbibe a ton of impressions and reading is their articulation or study which comes from understanding the difference between reading words and reading ideas.
Number Two: Preconceptions
A major hindrance to our reading experience can be our own closed blurred mind that approaches reading with the purpose of enforcing its prejudices and preconceptions. In such a case, we are no longer interested in what the book has to offer. Reading is an act of creating too just as its writing was. The value of reading is the effect the twists of sentences create in our minds or the meaning the signs create or the characteristics the various elements of the book create.
Number Three: Developing Tastes
Accompanied with active and open reading, one will eventually be able to contemplate their likes and dislikes or preferences rather than rely on external factors or influences. As you become a reader of your own, you tend to become your own person too. At this stage, we truly understand how reading is a reflective process and read books that best engage our creativity.
Let us delve deeper and look at how books from different genres can be read to extract the most value. However, the above mentioned pointers dictate a mind-set that is crucial to reading a book and should be followed while reading books from any genre. The only difference is that varied genres have slightly different elements that will be studied differently as a whole and thereby their expectations and results are different.
Fiction includes novels, poetry or drama that ranges from genres like Suspense, Crime, Horror, Romance, Science Fiction and so on. The important features of fiction are that it is subjective, indirect and is aimed at evoking feelings and ideas. To do so, the writer deploys these major elements that are also called as narrative or literary techniques:
Setting – Where the story is placed? With Psychological Thrillers, the story is placed more in a character’s mind rather than a physical place.
Style – The language, both literal and figurative (symbols, imagery, metaphors etc.), grammar and syntax; all of which that determines the author’s voice and become a medium to add depth to the book.
Characters – These are objects in the book whose main purpose is to engage and interact with the reader and hold their hand and walk the readers through the book.
Themes – These are the greater ideas in the book that reflect at the societal and humanistic conceptions and phenomenon that hinted at through artistic impressions. They add layers to the book and can be understood as the driving force behind the action of the book which when integrated together in the end determines the foundation of the book.
When you read a fiction novel, keep a lookout for these elements along with the plot and point of view, i.e., the ominous or first person narrator’s voice, and learn to interpret and critically analyse them by questioning their importance, effect, origin and most importantly purpose. Because even though themes are unstated, we do respond to them. For instance, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things may appear to be a drama that traces an ill-fated love story to doom, but on a closer look it is a commentary of the vicious caste system in India, prejudice, status of women and various heavily politicized phenomenon. It is also a good beginning to your exploration in the fiction genre.
While fiction can be regarded as an exercise of understanding, non-fiction is more to do about information. It includes works like travel writing, biographies, memoirs and so on. It is direct and objective even though it can have a lot of subjective discussions of beliefs, logical proof etc. As it already presents an analysis a reader of non-fiction must only diligently grasp the new information or knowledge and decide if it wants to accept or reject the presented perspective and ideas; and evaluate their significance. It is not just sharing of facts but writers of nonfiction try to convey creatively insights and enlighten through explanation rather than simply inform. Nonfiction is easier to misread because when we sit down to acquire information we automatically switch off thinking. We tend to engage with memory forgetting that nonfiction too requires keen observation, imaginative construction and abundant reflection – all parts of active reading. To break this loop, one can follow a few simple steps:
- Read all the extra information on the covers, prefaces or prologues and also the author’s bio to root the book in a context.
- Connect the book and its ideas with the culture, people and places it talks about to gain a broader understanding for which one might have to do more research and also connect how all of it can be relevant to oneself and their times.
- Bookmarks pages or paragraphs or sentences that one might think they will have to revisit because you sense its importance may emerge later on in the book or you haven’t quite yet understood its context yet.
- As you understand you jot down things or write in a corner your own insights to avoid being overwhelmed by the details.
- Lastly, question the conclusions, the reasoning and supplement with evidence from either other books or from within the book.
One book to get you excited and interested about the genre is Virginia Woolfe’s A Room of One’s Own.
Reading is a learning process too and is really a reward in itself. Bearing in mind all the tips suggested here, you can too re-discover the joy of stumbling upon something worthwhile, immersing yourself in its layers and depth and emerging out with more than what you had hoped for. Happy reading!