There is something beautiful about a long, good book–the kind that takes extra time to read, but where you feel like you truly know the characters and are deeply invested in the plot. This is how The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (who also wrote The Secret History) felt to read. After I started reading, a colleague of mine organized a book club around it. Knowing I will have to discuss the book with others impacted the way I wanted to read. Donna Tartt packs a lot into her books and I didn’t want to miss anything (which is what happened when I read The
I also realized that this would be a great opportunity to study myself as a reader: I wanted to take note of the work I was doing with a book I chose for myself that I wanted to read well. I’m mid-thought-process for a “last read” assignment for my students to help them get ready for high school and show off all they have learned as readers this year. So, the purpose of this post is to share my own reading process, but I’m curious about you: do you ever “study” the books you read for pleasure? What habits of mind do you have as you make your way through a book you want to deeply understand? I would love to hear from you and share them with my students–having more examples of how “real readers” approach their books will be so helpful.
Here is my process:
As I read, I underline anything that feels weighty/important to me as a person or anything that showed me something universally human. I’m always using my reading to better understand humanity. The writers of the Common Core may disagree with me on this one, but reading is a deeply personal experience and there are parts of narratives that will speak right into my life or my thinking. This also makes rereading interesting, like revisiting parts of my old self. I underline because I don’t usually want to break up my reading with a lot of note-taking, though sometimes I’ll jot down a couple words. Underlining allows me to revisit important moments in the story later and also rest assured that I won’t lose my ideas.
I do, though, pay attention to patterns of literature (which is common core aligned–ha). I think about the main characters and their relationships, their struggles, the things they seem to care about. I consider how the author set up the story, the significance of the various settings, and how the conflicts develop and intertwine. This work, though, is often done in my brain and not necessarily recorded anywhere (which is interesting to think about because this is often what I ask my students to consider in writing while they read. I think when I talk to them, I will have to discuss the fact that it is something that can become automatic when you’ve done it long enough). Sometimes I wish I had an assignment or reason to examine the importance of setting or to track a character’s inner thought patterns. Because I knew I would share my work with my students, I did more intentional underlining of this kind for The Goldfinch and it really paid off when I went back to do some deeper thinking.
About half way through I like to ask myself the question: so what is this book about? These I will generally write quickly on a blank page in the back of the book, which helps me be on the look out for where they appear and how they intertwine. For example, I jotted down that The Goldfinch is a book about loss, art, restoration, parent-child relationships, responsibility, and chance. At the end of the book I am able to think about these threads over the course of the entire story. (Teachers, this has been really helpful with students across all genres of reading,)
When I done reading, I go back and think through the different parts I underlined. Often, this is the last step in my usual reading process because one of those thoughts generally becomes a blog post where I flesh out the ideas I found to be the most important. For this read, though, especially because I wanted to invest in the process, I wanted to push myself as a thinker to get as much as possible out of the story. I went back and wrote the lines I underlined on post-its and organized them into categories. From there, I will reread, make connections, notice patterns, and develop ideas. It is amazing to find how much I enjoy this part of the reading and thinking process and how much it adds to my experience with the book.
At this point, I’d feel confident that I had taken the time to consider all the story had to offer. Of course, it’s not quite the same as sitting in a literature course, but enough to prepare to have conversations with my super smart colleagues, as well as the satisfaction that I did not read just for plot.
Once I finish my own thinking, I usually spend some time reading what others have said about the book. I enjoy this especially when I’m not reading with a book club. I check out book reviews from The New York Times or nerd out on other book blogs. I love picking up on things I never would have thought of on my own–and usually these reviews push me to become a stronger thinker for the next book.
So–do you have a thinking process for reading a book well? Are you able to hang on to mental notes or do you have to write them down? Do you have strong opinions about writing in books? Are you a part of a book club?