How to Read a Novel – Part One of Two

There have always been literate ignoramuses who have read too widely and not well. The Greeks had a name for such a mixture of learning and folly which might be applied to the bookish but poorly read of all ages. They are all sophomores. – Mortimer J. Adler


In my efforts to become a Better Person™, I spent some time last month studying How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler. Longtime blog followers know I’m a big fan of ol’ Morty (may he rest in peace). The guy was what you might call a “middle-class intellectual.” He tried to introduce “The Great Ideas” and philosophies into the world of the layman, because in his opinion, that’s where they should live; not locked up in an ivory tower requiring a fancy ascot and a secret handshake.

He also wrote a lot of academic, practical how-to books, How to Read a Book being only one of them.

Before I go any further, I should point out the chubby elephant in the room. There’s an obvious irony in learning how to read a book by, well, reading a book. What gives? Look, if you’re reading this, you’re literate and you can clearly read a book. What Adler was willing to bet is that most of us don’t know how to read a book well.

For example, I know how to draw a person, but I wouldn’t say I know how to draw a person well. I also know how to drive a car, but I’m no Mario Andretti.

So why all the fuss over reading well? Besides the wealth of enlightenment, practical knowledge, and overall enjoyment to be gained, I’ve discovered there are a few reasons specific to fiction writers.

Read, read, and read some more.

If you’ve ever sought writing advice, there’s no doubt in my mind you’ve come across that juicy bit.

I know you guys love to read. I love to read. In fact, I’ve read a few books over the past fifteen years (282 according to LibraryThing). What has become obvious to me lately is that only a small percentage of those have been read well, many of them deserving more of my time. For the most part, I’m still a Greek sophomore.

The reason behind us writerly types putting more effort into reading well is simple: it enables us to write well. Truly understanding not just how and why a story is put together, but also how and why its individual sentences and paragraphs are put together, pushes our own fiction to a new level.

Not only can the effort make us better at our own writing, but it can make others better. Many of us are part of critique groups. Think of all the marvelous insight you can provide your fellow writers by knowing how a good story is put together.

So what’s another writer-specific reason for thoughtful reading?

Well, it’s a bit more indirect, but affects every author. As alluded to before, Adler didn’t just put this book together for writers. He wrote it for Average Jane and Average Joe who want to get the most out of a book and be able to pass proper judgment on it.

See those italics? Where might one pass judgment on a book?

Book reviews anyone?

We’ve all seen–and a few of you have likely had unfortunate experiences with–those one- and two-star reviews eloquently stating something along the lines of, “This book performed exceedingly well at being crap.”

But bad reviews aren’t the only problem. There are the five-star reviews that give a prospective reader no reason to heed the reviewer’s opinion other than, “Wow! Such an awesome book!!1!!!1 A++++ Would read author again!”

If readers are going to leave reviews, they owe it to the authors out there to give their books due consideration. As writers ourselves, we know more than anyone how much sweat and blood goes into the ink. Why shortchange someone’s hard work? If you love a book, the author would appreciate knowing why. If you hate a book, the author would DEFINITELY appreciate knowing why (assuming they’ve given their blood pressure a half-hour to settle).

I hope these reasons have convinced you of some merits to reading well. But wait…why do people need convincing in the first place?

Because reading well is demanding work.

It’s easy to read through a book once and put it away, thinking we’ve expended its value.

“I’ve reached the back of the book,” we say to ourselves. “I’m done, right? I mean, I pretty much get the plot. Yeah, there may be some characters I’ve forgotten, some weird subplot that didn’t quite make sense and some interesting turns of phrase I likely missed, but, hey, I need to get on to the next book!”

I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. I have shelves filled with books and I’m sometimes filled with a dreadful sense that I need to get through them all before a speeding bus or a hungry bear removes me from this world.

But in those shining moments when I do re-read a book, I realize how much of a disservice to myself that line of thought really is and how much more I get out of that book by reading it at the next level (I’ll get into those levels in part two). When I take notes and outline the plot, dig into character motivations, identify themes, connect seemingly unconnected dots, I begin to appreciate at a conscious level what I previously appreciated only on a subconscious level. I can see how the author used those things to his or her advantage and tuck that in to my own bag of tricks.

Uncle Teddy Roosevelt had it right:

Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.

With all this being said about spending quality time with your books, Adler cautions us:

Not all books deserve to be read well.

This means many, if not most (according to Adler), books don’t deserve to be read past a superficial level. So there. You can breathe a small sigh of relief knowing you probably don’t have to dissect every single thing you read.

So how do you figure out which books have earned that right?

Well, that’s not an easy task. You have to use a lot of personal judgment. It’s tricky because there are a lot of good books out there that we may not like at first. We have to be honest with ourselves. Do we not like that book because it’s too dense and difficult to understand upon a first read? Difficulty doesn’t necessarily imply quality, but many things we learn in life are difficult at first and can only be appreciated after putting in the work. If the book is considered a classic by many folks, there’s likely some merit there and it’s likely to be worth expending the time and energy to dig deeper.

Anyway, I hope I’ve piqued your interest in this “reading well” thing.

In Part One, I’ve addressed the “why.” Part Two focuses on the nuts and bolts of “how.”

-Phillip

27 thoughts on “How to Read a Novel – Part One of Two

  1. For the past few years, I’ve endeavored to read “better” as well. Didn’t know there was a book to explain the how on that! (Should have known.) I’ll definitely be reading your next post on this.

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  2. So very true. Very few books can excel at all areas of interest – plot, characters, themes, technology or some other hook, but knowing what to look for has helped me in my writing, and my improved writing has made how I critique a book much more accurate. I am also curious about your thoughts on the “how”

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  3. When I read in the genre in which I write and the publisher I’m targeting, I dissect the book…highlight, post-its…the book is mutilated by the time I’m finished. Other books, I relax and read for pleasure.
    This is a terrific post, Phillip. I’ll look forward to Part 2.

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  4. Pingback: Weekly Recap – June 27th, 2014 | Phillip McCollum

  5. I really enjoyed this post, Phillip, and I believe I read it well :) I’m always trying to read well, which makes me a slow reader. With so many books out there that do deserve to be read well, it’s frustrating to read at a snail’s pace. And I am much slower when I read as a writer.

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  6. Hmm, this post didn’t show up in my reader yesterday–not sure why–but what an interesting topic. I tend to be a slow reader–rereading lines and passages to capture their full meaning. That’s not always the case. When I read a thriller, I don’t want to slow myself down. But it’s become more difficult to turn off my internal editor and read the book just as a reader. I tend to activate my writer brain, too, and think, “Oh, I love how the author did this,” or “I wonder why the author did this instead of this.” Sometimes I long for the days when a book was simply there to enjoy and not serve as a case-study for me. :)

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    • I hear you Carrie! Actually, one of the things I’ll point out in part two is that it’s recommended on the first read through to NOT activate the writer brain and keep it at bay until we move on to the analysis phase. So there is hope that we can enjoy a story for what it is on the first go around. :)

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  7. This is fascinating; you’ve definitely captivated my attention. In my collection of books, there are a few I’ve read more than once, and I always get more out of it the second time. These are usually my prized, 5-star books, but I’ve never stopped to think about why I felt they deserved that rating beyond “Wow! What a great book!” I agree with what Carrie said, above — I also get caught up in my internal editor, particularly when I read a favorite author, or when trying an author for the first time. There are days I wish I could turn it off and simply enjoy. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to part two of this post.

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  8. Great post, Phillip! And I agree that books deserve to be read well. I have highlighted books and used post-It notes to mark inspiring passages. When I was in grad school, I wrote essays on inspiring books. The books on my shelf are those I reread. Otherwise they get the heave ho.

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  9. Pingback: How to Read a Novel – Part Two of Two | Phillip McCollum

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