How to Read Novels by Shmoop
How to Read a Novel
Enjoying novels is not always easy. Reading requires you to put effort into the novel otherwise you end up lost, bored, and confused. The best novels, however, always reward you for the effort, showing off a depth and power that you might have missed while skimming. Though reading a novel takes work, it is enjoyable, low-stress work. With a little practice reading even difficult books will become second nature.
Appreciating Complex Novels
Block out distractions while you're reading.The best novels allow you to sink into them, becoming engrossed in the world of the novel while the outside world drops away. Giving your full attention to a book is the best way to read and understand it, whether you're reading novels or textbooks. Novels, however, are often told in a unique way, meaning you need time to get accustomed to the speaker, the style, and the world of the story to fully grasp them. In general:
- Avoid music with lyrics in it while you're reading.
- Try to read in blocks, setting aside at least 30 minutes. It is very hard to keep track of things if you're constantly picking the book up and down.
- Remove yourself from outside distractions, like a TV or lots of human activity.
Nail down the basic questions of the novel before tackling the headier themes.While some of this may seem obvious, taking five minutes to answer the following questions will give you a great foundation to keep reading. These are the essential parts of the novel, and you need to grasp them before moving on to more difficult discussions:
- What does the main character(s) want?
- Who is telling the story?
- Where and when is the story set? Be specific.
- If you're struggling to get the basics, there is no harm in picking up a study guide or reading a plot summary on Wikipedia. This can help you grasp the basic concepts quickly and start looking for nuance.
Think about the narrator's role in the story, if they have one.Novels are fictional, meaning that, except perhaps in the foreword, the narrator is also fictitious. Is the narrator a part of the story, or are they separate from it? Do they know everything, or just what certain character's know? Most importantly, can you trust the narrator? One of the biggest struggles for many readers is that they trust the narrator too much. Then, when they contradict themselves or make a mistake, it feels like the author made a mistake or that you don't understand the book. However, unreliable narrators are great clues into the meanings of a book -- after all, no real human could ever be a perfect narrator. In general, you should be cautious of any narrator who:
- Seems drunk, high, or otherwise drugged (A Clockwork Orange).
- Is mentally or socially impaired (The Sound and the Fury,Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime).
- Has reasons to lie, often because of a crime or wrongdoing (Lolita).
Think about the style.Why is a novel being told the way it is? Is it written in letters, or journal entries, or normal narration? Does the author use big, intimidating words or straightforward, concise sentences? If you're confused, think for a moment about how the story is being told -- it often tells you something about what is being told.
- Do you have distance between the events? Does the narrator seem to know what is going to happen, or are you along for the ride together?
Summarize the main events of each chapter or part once you finish it.Take a moment to stop and reflect on the events in each chapter. What, exactly, changed from the beginning of the section to the end? Have characters grown? Has the plot thickened? Are you back where you started? Eventually, after you've finished 4-5 chapters, you'll notice that these little summaries form an outline of the novel.
- Try and mark how characters change. Once you know how a character has changed throughout a chapter you can start to figure outwhythey've changed.
- If it is not already, try and order the plot chronologically. Stories that are presented out of order, likeThe IliadorAbsalom! Absalom!" are often difficult because they are jumbled up, not because the actual plot is complicated.
Search for symmetry, coincidence, and common motifs.Novels are carefully constructed, and by noting the similarities between characters, chapters, and settings you can get a clue into the overall structure of the book. Just as important are moments that should be similar, but have changed for some reason, such as a character coming back home after a long time away. What things keep popping up in the book? Why do you think they're important?
- InThe Orphan Master's Son,the idea of movies, actors, and Hollywood shows up repeatedly in the protagonist's early life. This is crucial, but not until the last third of the book.
- InThe Great Gatsby,there is repeated mention of a blinking light off the coast, and blinking lights reappear several other times. All of these moments are linked by longing for something the character's cannot have.
Reconsider the beginning of the novel once you've finished.To truly understand and appreciate a novel, you need to consider the entire thing. Moments that fell flat or didn't make sense early on might gain new meaning by the end of the book. Sometimes, the last few pages can complete turn the meaning, plot, or theme of the book around, like inFight CluborAtonement.Once you've finished a book, skim over your notes or the first chapter again -- do you get a new appreciation for the book?
- What would you call the theme of the book? What, ultimately, is the book about?
Form your own opinion on the book, but back it up with facts.Ultimately, once a book is published, it is up for a reader to make their own "meaning" out of it. To get the most out of the book (and/or your papers), you need to inject your own personality into the reading. Do you agree with the themes? Do you think the author effectively made you sympathize with the characters, or did you hate them. You can have any opinion you want, but you need to back it up with evidence from the book.
- Quotes, summaries, and your notes will form the basis of your case. Whether arguing with a friend or writing a term paper, you should always turn to novel for evidence.
Reading For Class
Take notes, especially of passages you like or find confusing.It is absolutely essential to take good notes when reading a novel for class. It is doubly important if you need to write an essay on the book later. You should highlight or underline important passages, and provide a brief note to the side reminding you why it is important ("symbolism," "character shift," "repeated metaphor," etc.). On paper, you should note bigger moments and shifts -- keeping track of character changes, overarching themes, and passages or moments you don't quite understand yet.
- Take notes during class discussion, marking important pages and quotes that you may have missed.
- You can go overboard with notes. You want your notes to be a guideline for your writing when you finish the book. If the whole book is underlined you won't get a lot of useful information.
Apply common literary terms to your analysis.Knowing literary vocabulary is the best way to get your point across when writing or talking about a book. It also helps you understand the novel as you're reading, giving a name to the myriad techniques and moments that you encounter so that you can take better notes.
- Theme:The overarching ideas, morals, or thoughts of the novel. Can be as simple as "good beats evil" and as complex as "capitalism is destroying the modern family."
- Metaphor:Making two dissimilar things seem similar. "She is a rose" doesn't literally mean the woman is a flower, it means she is beautiful, delicate, and a little barbed. A "simile" is when the metaphor uses the words "like" or "as," ie. "She islikea rose / She is prettyasa rose."
- Motif:A repeated idea, image, or flavor in a book. If a book frequently uses sailing and ocean metaphors, for example, it could be said to have a "nautical motif."
- Allusion:A reference to another work, either directly or indirectly. For example, any character that dies and is raised from the dead (A Tale of Two Cities,Harry Potter,) is frequently considered a "biblical allusion" to Jesus Christ.
- Symbolism:When an object in the book stands for the idea of something else. Symbolism is everywhere, sometimes unintentionally, because humans think in terms of symbols. For example, inOf Mice and Men,the rabbit farm comes to symbolize Lenny's dreams of financial security and safety. A symbol comes to represent a much larger idea than it initially appears.
Examine the style of the book, and find relationships to other books.How exactly is the story told? Is there humor, or is it mostly serious? Are the sentences long and difficult or short and speedy? You need to move past the basics of "what happened" and onto "why it happened." Do you think the author was influenced by other writers, artists, or current events? If so, how do they use fiction to really explore those influences? There are no right answers to these questions, but you need to ask them to get the most out of the novel.
- You cannot only worry about plot when reading, as plot is just one of the many pieces that make up a novel. Some teachers encourage reading summaries before starting the book. This helps you pay more attention to characters, themes, and structure, since you know how the plot ends up.
Find the common bonds between function and form.Novels work on two levels. The first level is "function," and it concerns what the novel is trying to say (plot, theme, setting, etc.). The second part, "form," is how it is being said (perspective, structure, metaphor, etc.). While good readers will note each side, excellent readers will note how the two of them come together. How does form reinforce function?
- David Foster Wallace'sInfinite Jestis all about the nature of entertainment, debating (in part) if one must work for entertainment. Accordingly, half the novel is written in footnotes, making the reader work by flipping back and forth, even within sentences and other footnotes.
- Even less serious books must merge form and function to be successful.Dracula,tells its horrible story as a series of letters and first-hand documents instead of a narrator. This allows Bram Stoker to slowly ratchet up the horror and gives the reader a sense that this really happened somewhere in England.
Consult outside sources, from non-fiction research to critical essays.As long as you cite the findings of other authors, one of the best ways to expand your knowledge of a book is to read into the world around it. You could research historical background information, or the author's own life and inspiration. You could read critical essays, which are common for "classic" books and can help make sense of complex novels.
- When writing longer papers, reading the thoughts of other writers is a great way to form your arguments early on. Do you agree, and have other evidence to offer? Do you disagree, and can you use the book to prove them wrong?
- Always cite any outside sources you've read and expand on them with your personal opinions. Use these sources as a jumping off point, not your only argument.
QuestionHow can I get a better understanding of an author's language?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerKeep a dictionary with you while you read, or use a Kindle/eReader as those often have built-in dictionaries that you can access while reading.Thanks!
QuestionHow do I read a novel without indulging in the thoughts of writing my own story?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerWhat's wrong with writing your own story? You can't stop your imagination willingly, so you might as well see where it takes you. But if you really want to read a novel without such thoughts, you can try to focus on analyzing what you are reading to "substitute" the thoughts. This would be the ideal way to read the novel with a better understanding of it. But realistically, it can't be helped.Thanks!
QuestionWhat if I can't comprehend anything?KrishtiCommunity AnswerPicking any book, you must be sure that you like the plot before you read it. Once you have started reading the book, if you are interested enough, you can definitely understand the book. If you do have trouble comprehending a paragraph or chapter, re-read it.Thanks!
To read a novel, try to find a time and place where you can read with minimal distractions, so that you can give it your full attention and understand what you’re reading. As you start reading, identify the main characters, the setting, and the narrator of the story, to help you understand the basics of the novel before moving on to more complex ideas. Then, pay attention to the author’s writing style and think about why the story is being told that way. Additionally, look for themes that keep popping up throughout the book, and what they mean.
- Think about what you like and dislike in a novel. How you react to a novel is just as important as what you think it is saying.
- Avoid distractions. Go somewhere where there is no computer, TV, cellphone, or anything that may produce noise.
- Never let someone tell you that your opinion is "wrong" on a book. If you can back it up with evidence for the book, you have a valid opinion. The only possible exception, of course, is if you're talking to the actual author of the novel!
Video: How To Read a Novel - The English Faculty
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