How to Read a Novel – Part Two of Two

Imaginative literature primarily pleases rather than teaches. It is much easier to be pleased than taught, but much harder to know why one is pleased. Beauty is harder to analyze than truth. – Mortimer J. Adler


I assume you’ve arrived at Part Two because you found agreement with Part One. Either that or you’re curious how wrong I can get things. Whatever the reason, I’m glad you’re here!

Last time, we ran through a multitude of reasons why we should make an effort to read well, the foremost being a desire to get better at writing our own stuff.

Before we know how to do that, we need to know what our goals are. Adler suggests three questions we need to answer fully before we can say we’ve read a novel well:

  • What’s the unity of the story?
    • This is generally known as the plot. What is the “whole of the parts” saying? We should be able to put together a one to three sentence chunk that summarizes the core plot of a novel.
  • How is the plot constructed from its parts?
    • What are the important scenes and characters that make up the story? How does the arrangement of scenes affect the whole? Where is the climax? What happens before and after the climax? Who are the key characters? What are their motivations?
  • Does the story have the ring of truth?
    • A story needs to demonstrate verisimilitude. It needs to be consistent from within and follow its own rules.

If we do it right, those three simple questions generate a lot of work. I think it becomes easier the more we do it, but I’m giving you fair warning. :)

Once we answer these questions, though, we can say we truly understand a book and can not only apply its lessons to our own work, but also pass proper judgement on the book itself. This may be a grind at times, but I promise you, you get out what you put in.

So how do we start?

First Maxim:

Read quickly and with total immersion.

Many of us pick up a novel and read it in spurts and fits. We live busy lives and can hardly find the time to read a short story in single sitting, let alone a novel. But if we don’t try to get through the book as fast as we can, we can lose the unity of the plot that a novel is built around and the first question can be difficult to answer. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding times where I’m mindlessly surfing the web, playing a game, or flipping the TV channels when I could be reading more. The time is there, we just need to be honest with ourselves and use it to improve ourselves. It’s like exercise or eating broccoli. It’s for our own good. :)

Total immersion also ensures we’re giving the author a fair shake. Reading a page here and a chapter there, we may miss the power of the story as whole over the month it takes us to finish. Conversely, we may also miss where a story actually loses itself, no longer sustainable within the world it has created.

Second Maxim:

Finish the book.

We can’t fairly criticize or understand a book if we haven’t run through to the end. I know we’ve all read books that at times, seem physically painful to finish. There are many reasons for that–poor writing, poor plotting, characters we hate, etc.

Still, sometimes things that frustrate us by page 100 may be clarified when we reach the end. We may even be impressed by how neatly it was all pulled off.

The truth is, we don’t know unless we finish. If we want to hate the book with all of our intellectual might at that point, let’s go for it! We’ve earned that right.

Third Maxim:

Read again with the purpose of greater understanding.

We’ve read the book once through. We’ve likely answered question number one and parts of questions two and three. Yet there may be some things beneath the surface that we’ve missed. With most classics, this is often the case–they’re usually classics because they stand up to multiple readings.

Not only does re-reading allow us to understand why those undercurrents worked so well, but also how they were applied. Here’s where we diligent writers can take notes and stick them in our toolbox. Here’s where we can look at what seemed like a pointless three-page digression and see how it fit into the story and how the whole really was better with it than without it.

Or maybe we realize it was completely needless after all. We can see what the author was trying to do, but failed. We can make sure that we don’t repeat the mistake.


In the end, the advice offered here is practical. According to Adler, if you truly agree with the ideas put forth, you must follow through on them. If you do not, then you truly do not agree with them. You may say you agree, that you’re just lazy or don’t have enough time, but what you really mean is that the idea isn’t important enough to follow through on–that it’s not REALLY true and that you can “read well” without it.

With all that said, I leave it to you to make up your own mind. I’ve found these principles to be more helpful than I first thought possible. You may think the whole thing is overkill, but why not try it once if you haven’t already? I hope you do and I hope you’re pleasantly surprised.

-Phillip

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

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

  2. Aside from the classics I was assigned to read in high school, there are few books that I’ve re-read…well, except To Kill a Mockingbird, I read that every summer. With so many fabulous books out there and limited time, re-reading is a rarity for me.
    I hope all is well in your world, Phillip!

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    • I hear you, Jill! I’ve always been horrible about re-reading. I’ve found when I do follow through with it though, on the books that deserve a re-read, it pays off in spades. I’m trying to get into the habit of re-reading the good stuff so I can learn more from them.

      Other than an annoying allergy infection, life is good! I hope you’re doing well also, Jill. :D

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  3. I can appreciate all the Maxims, and they make sense on a theoretical level, but I don’t know if I agree with them in practice. Total immersion is easy when it’s a story that absolutely speaks to your soul, and that makes it so much easier to actually finish the book. I’m not sure I can buy into the idea of reading the whole thing, even if I don’t like it. Still, it sounds like a well-thought out guide, with principles that might work for some but not all. Thanks for sharing, Phillip :)

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    • Oh yeah, I don’t at all disagree with you Gwen. :) Like most principles, following these is the ideal and never easy. I also mentioned in Part One about not all books deserving a re-read and I probably should have highlighted that again on this post. No need to re-read fluff that you know is fluff (unless you’re studying how to write good fluff). And you’re definitely not obligated to finish a book that is just horrible in all kinds of ways… I just personally try not to leave reviews for anything I don’t finish. Chances are, the book just wasn’t for me.

      I appreciate your well thought out comments, Gwen, and I hope you’re enjoying your summer. :)

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        • Sounds like an exciting summer! Glad to hear you’re making such progress with Camp NaNoWriMo. Whereabouts in Mexico are you headed?

          And yes, the day of Angus’ arrival is getting closer and more real! My wife and I are very excited about the new journey though.

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  4. It might be good to point out that we don’t have to deeply read every book we read. I have to admit, I don’t reread very often, simply because there’s so much to read that I can’t justify the time. But now and then a book comes along that I know will teach me something I don’t know about storytelling, and that’s the book I study.

    Maybe the intention of the author is important: a novel that’s meant to be primarily entertainment doesn’t have to be combed for meaning, while a book that clearly has symbolic, allegorical, and social implications might warrant a closer reading.

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    • Thank you Kevin! As I replied to Gwen, I mentioned not needing to read every book deeply in Part One. I think I’ll edit this post to mention it again as some folks may not have read the first part or haven’t read it in, say, a week. ;) I think you hit upon the spirit of the idea when you said, “But now and then a book comes along that I know will teach me something I don’t know about storytelling, and that’s the book I study.”

      And you make another good point that didn’t occur to me. Intention of the author (and the reader) should definitely be important in making that decision.

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      • Woops, my bad, Phillip! I should have gone back and reread Part I! But some ideas bear repeating, I guess.

        Beyond the author’s intentions, though, I imagine there could be disagreements among readers on whether a certain book is entertainment or “serious.” It’s in the eye of the beholder…

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  5. These maxims remind me of how I read (and was expected to read) when I was in college, especially grad school. I think they apply very well to books that lend themselves to close reading and/or books that you might want to emulate. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a book to which I would apply the maxims, but as a writer, I might also apply them to the novels of my favorite mystery writer because I want to learn from her. I wouldn’t apply them to a book that I’m reading just for fun, just for a quick escape with no desire to return once my fun is done. Unless, of course, that’s the sort of book I want to write :)
    The most difficult maxim for me is the first one, immersion. Unless I’m on a vacation and have absolutely nothing demanding my time, it’s a challenge to read more than one chapter at a time. It feels like such a luxury to be able to sit in a comfy chair and read for hours.
    The second maxim is important unless the book is just really, really bad (poor writing, poor plotting, poor everything). I would definitely agree if you are going to review a book, then you should finish it. But if it’s for your own edification, then I don’t think your time might be worth it. That said, I’ve read quite a few books that I wanted to quit mid-way but didn’t and then was glad that I finished. The difference for me is whether my frustration is from the author’s poor writing or from becoming so engaged in the story that I become frustrated when the characters do things I don’t want them to do. Not sure if that makes sense. I just think that sometimes we think we don’t like a book when in fact we’ve become so engaged with it that we care about what happens and that may be what is causing our frustration.
    Well, a very engaging post, Phillip! I really enjoyed :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, you really clarified everything I meant to say with this article, Marie! If you don’t mind, I’d like to copy this comment into the post so everyone else can see it. And I hear you on the immersion factor. There’s no way I can read something straight through for hours. Too many obligations.. Maybe some day when I win the lotto that I never play… :)

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  6. Another great post, Phillip. Adler’s advice also is great for when you’re writing a query letter. As you mentioned here, “We should be able to put together a one to three sentence chunk that summarizes the core plot of a novel.” That’s ideal for a query.

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