How to Read Closely: Making Sense Out of Novels
Reading a novel for class can seem challenging. Students are recommended to try to read novels with a pencil in hand to make notes in the margins and notecards nearby for writing down things you notice about characters or themes. You might prefer a highlighter and a sheet of paper with a line drawn down the middle. Either works fine as long as you have a place to jot down quotes, page numbers and observations from your reading and to write down questions or comments you might want to bring up during class discussion. Allow time to read and to re-read. Often you won't see meaning until the second time through a text. Allow 5 minutes average per page of reading you have to do. This is the typical amount of time required to digest a college text adequately. Try to break your reading into chapters so that you get a break of a few minutes between reading sessions. This may mean doing some reading in the morning before class, over lunch or in the afternoon and not saving it all for after dinner.
Reading for Understanding
- Don't take notes as you read. Get through at least a paragraph before you mark anything. This allows your brain to flow with the words and build a picture in your mind. You'll have a better sense of what was important in a paragraph if you wait until you finish it.
- As you read, try to be aware of patterns in characters, mood, word choice. Look for connections between this part of the story and earlier sections. Look for connections to things you've read before.
A Closer Examination
- When you start to take notes there are many things you could look seek out in the text. Start with a few basics and as you get more experienced, you will start to find more of the items on the list below.
- One method to consider is to mark these things in the book and jot in the margins, but then also transfer noteworthy items to notecards. You can use one notecard per character and sometimes one notecard per theme or argument so that you can keep all examples of that in one place. Whenever you jot down a quote, write down the page number to simplify paper-writing later. Things you might make note of would include phrases about a character's behavior or development. "fearful timid behavior" p. 200, "fearful aggressive behavior" p. 231, "confident verbal stand", p. 242. You might start seeing patterns that stay with the character or note places where the character grows and changes.
- A novel is expected to introduce up to 600 new words. You might not be able to look up the definition of each word, but have a laptop or dictionary handy and try to look up at least one out of every 5-10 new words you stumble across. Building your vocabulary will benefit you during future readings and give you important insight into the author's intent.
During a Close Reading Look For:
- Descriptions: reporter-like accounts of person, object or event. The facts (what you see, hear, taste, touch,etc.) Example: The sky was full of gray smog. We walked down the alley."
- Imagery: vivid or figurative language used to describe the same things as above but with more exaggeration. Often they will use similes, metaphors or make assumptions about a person or situation as they describe it because they feel it will paint a clearer picture in your mind or will help you, as the reader, connect to it more personally. Example: "Overhead, the factory's boogie monster crawled across the sky as we ducked between buildings hoping to escape it."
- Interpretations by the author: imagery that is draw from speculation on the part of viewer, these are not known facts. "Some evil overlord was wringing his hands and laughing as his henchman covered the sky and blocked the sun and our hope with one fell swoop."
- Syntax: the pattern of grammar or the formation of sentences or phrases, grammatical arrangement. You can notice this when you read something out loud. Does the author choose to use unusual sentence structure, perhaps a one-word sentence or putting the verb before the subject. What effect does it have on the reader ? How does it change the tone of the book? What does it tell us about the person speaking if it is dialogue?
- Semantics: This is about the meaning of words or the distinctions in meanings of words or symbols. An example might be noticing the use of the word "poverty" in a sentence. This can mean financially poor, but it can also mean lacking a necessary ingredient. As a result a person may be impoverished--lacking money, lacking a soul, lacking creativity or soil may be impoverished of a certain mineral. If a word doesn't seem to fit or catches your eye, it never hurts to look it up to check for alternate meanings. If the book describes a person as "threadbare" that might seem odd because that word usually means frayed and a person isn't often frayed. But if you look it up you'll see it can also mean worn out and a person might be that quality and one can discuss the author's choice in using a word to describe a person usually used to describe an object.
- Look for foreshadowing, irony, humor and other literary devices used to move the story along.
For more on this subject; consider these links: