Here at the Nerd Nest, we’re big on nerd pride. We live in a world where it’s cool to be smart, and we want a space in that world where others can share their nerdy interests with you too. Welcome to Spread the Nerd, a guest series where awesome nerds like us tell you about their nerdy area of interest and teach you a little something too.
Today’s Spread the Nerd is brought to you by Kristin of My Life as a Teacup.
Being an English major doesn’t mean just sitting around and reading books all day (well, kind of). There’s a lot of thought and planning that goes into literary scholarship and analysis, and that’s before you even crack open the book’s cover!
But how do you go from reading a book for pleasure to critically analyzing it?
You’ve first got to hone your reading skills and become an active reader. I promise, it won’t make reading feel like a daunting chore or spoil your favorite rainy day read. The key to becoming an active reader is to think about what you’re reading while you’re reading it. I taught this to my 7th graders, so I have no doubt you can do it too!
Becoming an Active Reader
Thinking about what you’re reading as you’re reading it may feel strange at first. You may have to read at a slower pace to process what’s happening, reread passages, or make note of certain events or descriptions. Don’t just breeze through the story; take time to savor the details, note the weird moments, or even really cool things that happen. You’re not required to remember every little detail, but try to soak up some descriptions that resonate with you as you read.
Another way to become an active reader is to take notes as you read. It may feel a little like a school assignment, but keep a stack of Post-It notes handy to jot down questions you have about a passage and stick them right in the book (people who fear writing in books need not worry!). If you’ve got an e-reader, bookmark that particular passage, or keep a blank document or piece of paper handy to scribble your thoughts on. They don’t need to be elaborate or detailed; they only need to make sense to you, and you can decode/elaborate on them later.
Applying Critical Lenses
Analyzing literature doesn’t end with simply reading and taking notes. Now that you’ve thought about what you’re reading, it’s time to think about what it means in a greater context. That’s where literary theory and critical lenses come in.
Critical theory exists to interact with and talk about a text. By applying a lens, you can focus in on overarching themes and ideas you find to be important in a particular text. Not everyone interprets a text the same way, even if they both apply, for instance, a feminist lens. Here are some common lenses you can apply to a work to get yourself started:
- Formalist/New Criticism
- Apply the lens: if you read Anna Karenina with a feminist lens, what did you find out? What about an economic lens? What does the lens you chose reveal about the book?
- Analyze a theme. Do you agree with the message? What does a certain theme or character’s behaviors say to you? Don’t just make crazy claims – make sure you support your ideas with examples in the text or outside resources
- Trace a word and it’s implications through the story or it’s meaning throughout history and how different readings might convey a different message.
- Make a parallel to another book or historical event. Or movie. Or comic. Or tv show. Or fictional character. The possibilities are endless.
- Play devil’s advocate and challenge the standard argument.
- Look at how the text looks – where are line breaks, if it’s a poem? Are there illustrations? Pictures? If it’s handwritten, are there other word choices or ambiguous handwriting?
The above lenses do not constitute a definitive list, and really, I’ve oversimplified the list above, as there are many complexities and divisions that describe each lens further (gender and feminist, for example, are not the same thing, but for organization’s sake, I’m listing them as a type of lens category here). The point is to approach your text from a certain angle. You can change your angles up, but don’t try to analyze every aspect at the same time. Your brain will explode.
It helps to have a lens or theory in mind before/as you’re reading, but that’s not always possible. Some lenses may be inapplicable, other times, more than one can apply and may be more powerful at certain points in your reading, and sometimes, you’ve just gotta figure it out as you go.
A word of caution: I hesitate to recommend you look up previous scholarship on a book or topic. Sometimes it can be helpful to get a sense of the themes of a work, especially a text that is part of the literary canon and has an already extensive list of scholarship available, like Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, etc. Doing so can give you an idea of prevalent themes and lenses which you may want to draw upon, but reading others’ theories can color your own reading of a book, and you may not want that, as it may be hard to unsee, especially if you’re trying to write original criticism of your own. Researching existing arguments can be a great jumping off point, but even for the seasoned scholar, I would recommend you proceed at your own risk. It’s hard for me to shake someone else’s ideas sometimes.
One further note: Please, please, please interact with other scholars! I don’t mean to scare you off with my comment above, but do read other scholarship and engage in a dialogue with it. What do you agree with? What do you not? What would you like to build upon or take further? Use it to inspire your own work, reach out to the author, discuss it, and generate new ideas! But please don’t just regurgitate someone’s argument. And especially don’t take credit for it as your own. Plagiarism ain’t a joke, guys.
Take a Stance
I remember sitting in English class in high school and being asked to write a paper about the book we just read. I entered a state of panic every time. It’s not that I was a bad writer or loathed writing papers, I just didn’t know how to start.
It’s all good and fine to read a book. It’s even fine to think about what gender roles are at play in said book. But how do you translate your thoughts about what you read into something like a paper? It starts with active reading, but then you’ve got to do something with all of these thoughts once you’ve thought them! My mistake in high school was not knowing how to put my thoughts down on paper via a strong or creative claim. Yes, I could blabber on about my long list of feelings while I read, but without something to say about it, it’s just word vomit!
Here are some tips for turning your thoughts into a statement or argument on which you can elaborate:
So go out and create something! Don’t just let all of those ideas sit in your brain, unshared! Write a paper, write a blog post, talk about your ideas with a friend over coffee, present your findings, make a video and educate others, create an infographic of what you’ve discovered, write a novel with the themes you’ve found to be important or problematic, or just liked.
Kristin is a bookworm who gets way too emotionally attached to fictional characters. When she’s not scribbling a list on any scrap of paper that graces her path, she can be found sipping a cup of chai and discussing the literary merits of Batman with her Pittsburgh English Nerd posse. Grab a cup of tea, get cozy, and follow My Life as a Teacup for writing and organization tips, literary discussions, and all things bookish! You can connect with Kristin on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.