How To Read A Book (Part One: Contexts)

Reading a book is very easy to do, and not really my topic here. Rather, I am concerned with how to study a book. This would be a far less interesting title, but I apologise if you feel you have been misdirected.

I’m reluctant to talk about myself in these posts, as it gives the impression that this is some sort of journal. However, a little context is useful. At the time of writing, I’m in my third year of studying English and history. This sort of course involves quite a lot of reading and studying books, so it is inevitable that one must develop a few skills along the way. Everything suggested in this post may be wrong, or incomplete, and corrections are encouraged; but so far this has been working for me.

First, a couple of definitions. When I talk here of reading or studying a book, I am referring to the process of examining and interpreting a text. This has more to do with English than history, but can be applied in more or less the same manner to any bookish topic. Reading for enjoyment is a different, easier thing, though I suppose most of these ideas could be applied to make that experience more rewarding. Also, when I say book, I really mean any distinct body of text. This could be a novel, a poem, a textbook, an article, or a comment on a YouTube video. It is, in my view, all a matter of deciphering text, and regardless of that text’s form, certain approaches are required. For the sake of illustration, I will talk in terms of reading novels, but it makes little difference.

When you pick up a book, it’s very tempting to start reading straight away. (Well, this is true only if you like books. If you don’t, then you will probably find yourself wondering why you picked up the book or, indeed, started reading this post.) This is very well if you just want to enjoy the text, but if your goal is to study it, a fast start is going to be of little help. Reading a book is like running a race: it’s vital to begin carefully.

This would all make more sense if you happened to have a book to study at this moment. I’m going to pretend that this is the case, because it makes things easier to explain. Your first act should be to look at the title page, and make sure you know the name of the author. This seems an awfully obvious and pointless activity, but it’s awfully amazing how many people don’t do basic things like this. Now you know the two most important things about the book: title and author. The next most important piece of information is not, as some idealistic literature enthusiasts might have you believe, the first line, but rather the date of publication.

Here I should expose my own assumptions. As a history student I deal with context all the time, though even before studying history, I believed that the contemporary background of a text is vital to understanding it. To use a very dramatic example, there is an epochal difference between a European novel published in 1913 and one published in 1919. Even if the author has no political concerns, the background of the text is absolutely different. The work may have no apparent relation to real-life events, but the date of its publication still tells you a great deal about its meaning. Once you know the year, it would probably be a good idea to get some sense of what was happening in the world around that time, though if you’re a history student, this may be unnecessary.

Now, wait just a second. You thought you were ready to begin reading, and were turning to the first page. Slow down. Close the book, and find out another important piece of information: where this text fits, in the context of the author’s body of work. There is a huge difference between an author’s first and last novel. To use another dramatic example, Nineteen Eighty-Four was George Orwell’s last work. Whether you thus interpret it as a culmination of his thought in a final testament, a bleak prophecy for the latter half of the twentieth century, or the ramblings of an angry man close to death, is beside the point. The vital thing is that your reading of the text is changed by this detail. If, on the other hand, he had written this as his first novel, you might read it as a sort of manifesto that would guide his later work, or perhaps as the initial passionate declaration of a young writer frustrated by restrictions. One can learn these facts after reading the book, of course, but applying this contextualisation in retrospect is an exercise that requires considerable mental acrobatics.

You’re almost ready to begin. Make sure to check the edition of the book. If it is in its ninth edition, for instance, it is reasonable to assume that a number of people consider it to be a good book, or, at least, an “important” one. Finally, before settling in, get a sense of the book’s layout. Check the number of pages, chapters, and subdivisions, if any, and have a look at the prefatory material — introductions, dedications, even acknowledgements can be useful, especially if it is a primary source. This is obviously easier to do if you’re working with a print edition, which is why I prefer to get physical books where possible and affordable. All these little bits of semantic detail seem irrelevant, yet are useful to contextualising the work.

To any experienced reader this advice no doubt seems redundant, but what I am trying to get across is that the more you know about a text before starting to read, the better for your ease of understanding. All these things are, of course, mere preliminaries, for in studying a text, comprehension is just the first stage. In general I would argue that it is best, on your first reading, to read quickly and without too much analysis, to get a sense of the work. Afterwards, once you know the book’s geography, you can chart it in more detail.

I think the general assumption is that once you have become familiar with a text, you will proceed to the task of interpretation. However, you must be careful not to rush things. It is unwise to deduce meaning from a text too soon. Instead, the initial encounter should be followed by close reading, a skill that is fundamental to literary criticism, yet is not always properly explained to the student of English. As we shall see in Part Two of How To Read A Book, a careful close reading will decipher the work, exploding a smooth surface of impenetrable text into a rough terrain of jagged, complex meanings.

English, history, and other things. My first novel THE LAST WORLD is available on Amazon.

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