In a previous post I talked about speed reading and ways to get through material faster. This time I want to chew on what critical reading means and my personal process.
Part of living a bigger life is continuing to educate ourselves long after we finish school. Because I home educate our two youngest kids, I decided long ago that I needed to stay fresh in a variety of subjects. (Admittedly I skimp on science. Shhh…don’t tell!) The point is, I want to fill in their education with all the subjects I was shorted on, and one of the big ones is literature.
The kids are a few years away from reading some of the biggies—Dickens, Austen, Bronte—which gives me time to catch up on all the great books I missed out on in school. One day I want to lead my children through Socratic discussions where they can not only learn the facts of a particular story, but also glean the life lessons and see how each great work has contributed to civilization.
Like any other worthy endeavor, tackling great literature doesn’t just happen. There are ways to approach a timeless novel to help you read, think and absorb what the author was trying to convey, and what lessons can be applied to your own life (a.k.a. takeaway value.)
Tips for critical reading:
Make a list
This is a go-to step for me in almost everything I try, but it really works. Listing the books you want to read will help you see the overall picture.
My method is chronological because I combine my reading with the time period we’re studying in history. Studying the literature of the day alongside the facts gives a fuller context to the work at hand. Unless you’re homeschooling, you may not have the luxury of combining a study of history with literature, but the more you know about a time period, the more you can see the world from the author’s point of view.
Read a brief biography of the author
It often helps connect the dots between the author’s own life and the ideas presented in the book. This also helps if you aren’t familiar with the time period, just to ground you in the story and the events of the day.
Have your notebook in hand as you begin. Many classics start off with several characters that will be hard to keep track of unless you write them down. At the end of each chapter, I pause to write a summary, that way if I have to stop reading for the day or over the weekend, I can refresh my aging memory and pick up where I left off.
In addition to characters and events, you can also note ideas or connections you make due to the story. For example, when I was reading Jane Eyre, I noted a few passages that jumped out at me which related to snippets I’d heard of Charlotte Bronte’s possible connection to universalism. You’ll be amazed at how many associations your brain starts to make when you purpose to dig in!
Note the basics
Where and when does the story take place? Who are the protagonists and antagonists? What does the main character want and what stands in their way? What is the basic outline of the plot, and can you see the rising action, climax and denouement? Try putting the gist of the story into your own words to solidify the story in your head.
Example: Jane Eyre, a governess in 1800’s England, falls for her employer who doesn’t tell her that his crazy wife lives in the attic before he asks her to marry.
It doesn’t have to be fancy since the notes are for your eyes only.
This stage you can attempt to do chapter by chapter, but much of this critical thinking is best done when the book is finished. Look inside the characters, even the villains, and begin to recognize their traits inside ourselves. Examine the ideas presented in the novel and mull them over. Decide what truth the novel is presenting and whether or not you agree with it. What truth can you apply to your own life, and how does this great work help you see the world differently than you did before you started?
Of course, there are more detailed ways to approach great literature, but I’m sharing my personal process that fits into my life right now. If you’re looking to begin, check out this list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. Though it’s not complete, it’ll give you a running start on your literary journey.
Do you have a critical reading method you follow, or do you read the great works purely for entertainment?