“Reading is easy. I just don’t have time.” I hear this at least once or twice during my year, often more now that I’m in college, where fellow students are assigned multiple novels during a semester. They will probably skirt by through SparkNotes, skim their books, and follow the movie versions for an easier, two-hour viewing.
“Reading is easy,” yet many of us would rather do anything but settle in to read something in-depth for a few hours. Reading consumes time and takes effort- save for maybe the lightest fair that makes up your local grocery store’s books, abound with James Patterson and Nora Roberts. For something that’s gained the reputation of being easy, we sure treat reading like a Herculean task in our day. In many ways, people speak of reading the exact same way the speak of writing: “anyone can do it, but I’d rather not.”
So perhaps we should reframe what reading is, or better yet, the different kinds of reading we engage in. Because we often ignore the value of critically reading- and I don’t just refer to the critical reading we do in school. I refer to the critical dissection of work that goes beyond reading for fun.
I think this makes more sense from the author’s perspective. There is a space you reach, at some point when you write, where it becomes harder to just “read for fun.” Not that you won’t ever read for fun again, but the enjoyment you garner from stories will come from different places. Your favorites’ list will start to become a narrower, cleanly trimmed path of books that you revisit a lot and fill with sticky notes. You begin to admire the sweep of a sentence and the structure of a story arc, rather than the garnish and straight plot that makes up a usual read. Like any good magician, you suddenly understand how the tricks are put together; you see the mirrors and extra cards. It’s only worse if you have a strong inner editor.
When I first experienced this, I was a little heartbroken. There were suddenly so many books I was critical of, and I feared it made me hate them. I would never siphon true enjoyment from reading if all I could think to do was pick apart sentences and story arcs… It took me some time- not until I first considered an English major in college, that I changed my mind.
Flashback to spring of 2015, in my small English 102 class, where we spent a lot of time interpreting contemporary poetry. We had one novel to write about for the class, Robert Cormier’s YA terrorist thriller, After The First Death… I hated this book. I still really hate this book, and the way it’s written, and how horrible its one-dimensional characters are to each other. I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to write about it, since I spent ¾’s of my read picking it apart. When the professor approached me about my essay ideas, I made it clear, “I don’t particularly like this book. In fact,” I said. “I’d have enjoyed it better if I spent more time on the relationships and characters. There’s so much to be desired there.”
“I agree. So, write about it,” my professor offered. “Interpret it through that perspective.”
Two lengthy, handwritten drafts later, not only did I write an entire essay on the critical issues surrounding After The First Death, I had completely reshaped one of the final scenes and accredited two characters’ tension to Stockholm and Lima Syndrome, with scientific evidence to back up the claim. It led to two of the best grades I ever got on essays. From my critical read, I had gained something else Cormier’s book that I might not have gleaned otherwise. Yes, I saw what Cormier did, but also why it worked for other readers, and how to interpret it differently.
This was for a class, but I try to maintain this style of reading now, whether studying Shakespeare or cracking open the latest novel by Marissa Meyer. I try to cobble together deeper meaning from the fiction I read, and love when books can meet me with that level of depth. I love when I can peel back the layers of a story, and surprise myself with what the author created.
Reading this way isn’t always easy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. There is magic to be found in between passages, after all.
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Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.