Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Salon: How to Read, Use, and Abuse Beautiful and Pointless Novels Like a Professor

Problem Posed

I love to read, but I don’t know how to read well.
I read widely, but I don’t read deeply.

So what can a busy reader do to correct this?  

Read books, of course.
Read books that teach one how to read deeply.
Of course.

I nervously chose three books.
Three books that promised
to help me read more deeply.

Here were the three I tried:

 I read all three.

What did I find?
Am I now an erudite and cerebral literary pundit?
An au courant belletristic virtuoso?

Well, no.

The Bad News

Two of the books were grim reads.
I love books. You know that about me.
But what probably you don’t know is
 that there are some books that I don’t like,
some books I actually hate.
Yes, it’s true.
I hate textbooks.

I loathe textbooks.
I hate the pompous, condescending tone of textbooks.
I hate the know-it-all attitude of textbooks.
I hate the way textbooks don't care if they are well-written;
textbooks know people will read them anyway
because people are forced to read them.
I hate textbooks.

Sadly, I found The Use and Abuse of Literature to be a textbook.
 I felt used and abused while reading this book.
This book is a case of the abuse of literature, in my view.

Sadly, I also found How to Read Novels Like a Professor:
A Jaunty Exploration of the World's Favorite Literary Form
to be a textbook.
There is, sadly, nothing jaunty about this book.
I liked How to Read Literature Like a Professor,
this author’s previous book.
But maybe Foster used up all his jauntiness in that book.

In any case, I was bored to death reading these two books
and that’s a shame.

The Good News

I love poetry
but I know nothing about poetry.
Would I find anything of value in
Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry?

Yes, happily, I found Beautiful and Pointless
to be a useful and clever book about poetry.
The text of this book is poetry,
with lots of apt metaphors and similes.
It’s humorous, too, which I found a great relief.

How about you? 
What did you read this week?
Could you recommend anything to help me
on my quest to
become an erudite and cerebral literary pundit?
Preferably something jaunty....

Today is the last day to enter
the July Giveaway here at Readerbuzz...

And it's international!

What is the Sunday Salon?
Imagine some university library's vast reading room.
It's filled with people--students and faculty and strangers who've wandered in.
They're seated at great oaken desks, books piled all around them,
and they're all feverishly reading and jotting notes in their leather-bound journals as they go.
Later they'll mill around the open dictionaries and
compare their thoughts on the afternoon's literary intake....

That's what happens at the Sunday Salon, except it's all virtual.
Every Sunday the bloggers participating in that week's Salon
get together--at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones--and read.
And blog about their reading. And comment on one another's blogs.
Think of it as an informal, weekly, mini read-a-thon,
an excuse to put aside one's earthly responsibilities
 and fall into a good book. 
Click here to join the Salon.


  1. My only advice on reading "deeply" would be to pick up a particular book and then look up discussion questions/themes online - this should help you to analyse and see the deeper layers. I did English Lit at uni and we were never taught how to "read deeply", but the lectures focused on themes while tutorails focused on discussions to tease out those themes.
    Actually, are you a part of any book clubs? I always find discussing books helps me understand them in different ways - one of the reasons I love book blogging so much!

  2. Ah, and I've heard good things about How To Read Novels Like a Professor. It's a shame it's a bit too much like a textbook.

    I don't read deeply (although sometimes I might get the odd idea or two about a book) and to be honest, it's not something I want to become bogged down in because I primarily read for enjoyment. My sister completed an English Literature degree and it almost killed her passion for reading.

  3. Loving the sound of the Poetry book & like yourself I hate books, that look down & presume to tell you from their exalted position how to think, I had teachers that tried that & we didn't see eye to eye on much, so why should you fork out your hard earned to be treated as such. At the moment am reading A.Manguel's book Homer's The Illiad & The Odyssey, which is a fascinating book about their influence on Literature, and is just a great read, regardless of its Literary pretensions.

  4. What a horror story, Sam. Thanks for sharing it. Perhaps I am better off staying away from trying to think about literature too much.

  5. Yes, what happens to some of these teachers, parrish? Certainly they have been trained to think deeply about books. Why do they kill the joy of reading?

    This is a mystery that I need to think about.

    But not too much....

  6. There's a book by Susan Wise Bauer - The Well Educated Mind - that is a book study of sorts of all the great books one should read. I think it is meant to deepen our understanding of the written word. I have some friends that have been working their way through it for a few years. It's not for me but may be for you.

  7. I don't know if this is the same thing as learning to 'read deeply' but I really enjoy the memoirs that authors put out like Steven King's On Writing and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. They have a wonderful perspective on life and how it shaped them as writers/readers. These books feel like I'm having a conversation with a bookish friend - much more enlightening and enjoyable than being patronized by a textbook.

  8. Oh, bummer! I have How To Read Literature… on my actual stack of books to read next. The poetry book does sound great, though!

  9. Thank for the heads up, BookBelle. I'm off to add this to my TBR.

  10. Trish, I am with you: I seem to learn more from conversing with someone rather than trying to listen to someone pontificate. Well, maybe I don't actually learn more, but it is a more enjoyable experience.

  11. I liked How to Read Literature a lot, SmallWorld. The sequel, How to Read Novels...not so much.

  12. I'm currently reading The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction - OK so a professor wrote it but it is a bit radical - he advises reading on whim .....!

  13. Reading on whim...sounds like good advice! Off to add this to my TBR....

  14. I have avidly steered away from anything pompous and resembling a textbook after my many years spent in colleges!

    I literally seemed to flee toward anything and everything light and fun. Nowadays, though, I do mix my light and fun books with those that offer some social issues. Like a couple of the books I read this week.


  15. Glad you cleared that up -- now I can take those off my reading list (just kidding). But I, to feel I read a lot but not deeply -- but I think it's because what I read doesn't require much deep thought. I think I'm capable of reading deeply, I just usually don't want to (because then it's like reading a textbook!)

    Great thoughts! Happy reading!

  16. Great post! My advice? Don't worry about being "erudite", let's leave that to the textbook writers!

  17. I absolutely loved graduate school because I got to spend hours in a seminar talking to people about the books we read. Reading deeply only added to our love of the books we read. The more we understood about how the writer and the books worked, how they used theme, imagery, symbols, language, the more impressed we were.

    Unfortunatly, I cannot think of a book for you that will give you this experience. I do think starting with Stephen King's On Writing is a good idea. You might want to skip the first half, the memoir, if it doesn't interest you.

    What I think would help is re-reading a few books you love. If they are great books, you'll probably find all kinds of things you didn't notice the first time around when you were focused on the story. Reread one or two with a pencil in your hand to mark passages, words, characters, whatever you like. See what you'll find. That's really all you need to do to read deeply.

    I suspect you'll find it's worth the effort if the book itself is worth it.

  18. I think you are right, Annette. I am capable of reading deeply. (Well, maybe not deeply, but deeper.) I don't do it very often.

  19. I will stop trying to be erudite, Helen. It doesn't sound like it's that much fun to be erudite.

  20. Thank you, C.B. I think you are right. I have (very, very occasionally) written and spoken thoughtfully about books and it is generally after I've spent a little time letting my yeast ferment. I need to spend more time letting my yeast ferment.

  21. I am not a fan of text books either. I have a hard time reading book that tell me how to read books. Makes steam come out my ears. ;-)

  22. Have you read Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose? So, so, so very good -and not like a textbook at all! :) Have a great Sunday.

  23. Have you read Ruined by Reading by Lynne Sharon Schwartz? It won't exactly teach you how to read deeply but it is one of the most delicious books I've ever read about the love of reading. And although I try to read deeply most of us I think just love to read. And that is the best thing ever.

  24. I could not agree with you more. I loathe textbooks and I spend a majority of my year reading them, as I'm still a college student (But that ends December 8th!)
    I try to read deeply but sometimes I feel like if I spend too much time thinking about things it just confuses me or it makes me not like what I just read. So, I just read :]

  25. I wonder what exactly "deeply" means? Are you reading deeply if you connect with the characters on a personal level? If the book changes your life? Being in academic myself, I know some academics try to define reading "deeply" one way, and that's their way. That doesn't work for everyone, so I say read the way you want to read.

  26. Thank you, Robyn. I think I will do that. I think I will read the way I want to read.

  27. I think the poetry book sounds very useful. I've alwasy wanted to know how to read and understand poetry better than I do.

    Textbooks - any books that purport to teach how to read better and properly sound like they are full of hot air. As long as you read, pay attention to what you read and think about the dialogue, the characters, the descriptions, the setting, what the author's written, you're good to go. I don't believe there's a right & wrong way to read so long as you're reading books because you want to read them. Just my humble opinion :o)

  28. Sometimes I feel guilty because I just gulp down books like jelly beans and don't savor them as much as I should. Earlier today I was reading Habits of Being, the letters of Flannery O'Connor, and was comforted by this comment of hers to a friend:

    "I've read your book with great delight and i wish I had some reasons to tell you why I think it's so fine. However, I merely enjoys, I does not analyze. It's a book that's alive all the way though, and that's as close as I can come to saying anything intelligent about it."

  29. Wow. Thank you, Becca. If Flannery O'Connor can acknowledge her occasional inability to dig deep, I suppose that I can, too.

  30. I have How To Read Books Like a Professor. But, I haven't read it yet. I also saw Mortimer Adler's book How To Read A Book (I think that's the title) at my mother's. Haven't read it.

    Ultimately, I think it comes down to reading...some books are great hits, some are misses, but the ones that cause us to grow, to expand our horizons and consider new possibilities are the ones that deepen our reading. Perhaps we don't need a book to teach us how to do that; it just comes naturally.

  31. I like to read deeply, but I don't like to follow along with too much structure. I just read a bit more slowly, look up references as I am reading, etc. Some books lend themselves to being read deeply whereas others do not.

  32. Some time ago I read How Harry Potter Cast His Spell ( On thing that has stayed with me is that the author was asked whether he spoke to JK Rowling about whether his interpretations were correct--whether she meant to say what he said she said. His reply? No, but that who is to say that she is the only one who can interpret her books? Me, I like stories, I'll leave the themes and symbols to folks who have nothing better to do.


Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!