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?
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.
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.
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.