Need help learning how to get more out of what I read?
January 5, 2011 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend free websites for literature analysis/guides?

I am looking for well-written, knowledgeable insight into the themes, motivations, and characterizations within fiction. I don't necessarily want a book club type discussion, but something more pithy. I am a voracious reader, but feel like I'm missing a lot of depth when I read my favorite authors like Iris Murdoch or Robertson Davies. I want to learn to read for more than just a "good story."
posted by alexgrey to Education (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder whether you aren't asking two questions in one here - One is about guides to specific books, and the other is about how you can learn better interpretive practices for yourself.

In some ways these questions are at cross purposes. At the simplest level, this is because one of them is concerned with specific texts - for instance, "what is the theme of Iris Murdoch work X?" - and the other is concerned with general principles - "How is it that a reader arrives at an understanding of a work of literature?" But the difference may go deeper than that.

The first question, the reader's-guide one, thinks of literature as a series of puzzles with definitive answers - like a math problem, say, or a code. THE THEME is somewhere in that book, and if you're a good enough reader, you can ferret it out, but if not, you can skip to the back of the book and see the answers, and then you'll know.

To my mind, the biggest problem with this approach is in where it locates the meaning of a written work. If there's a one-sentence answer to the question "what is the theme of Iris Murdoch work X," then that theme is contained entirely in "Iris Murdock work X," regardless of who's doing the reading. The meaning of a book, though, floats somewhere between the book itself and the reader - or, rather, is something of a collaborative effort between the book and the reader. It isn't a static thing, but emerges from the process of reading.

The answer to the second question, then, and I think the best route forward for you right now, is to be very attentive to your own process of meaning-making as you read. One of the ways in which written works constitute meaning is through their plot, certainly, and as you read for a "good story," you're looking for exactly that kind of meaning - a narrative of particular events occuring in a particular order, with rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. There are other ways in, though.

You say you're a voracious reader, and I wonder whether you're racing through books for storylines, and paying less attention to anything that's not "story" related. Have you tried rereading a book you've just finished? That might be one way to start. If you're reading for the "good story," how do you read a book differently if you already know what the story is? Is there anything still there to keep you interested? If so, what? Do you find yourself noticing details more? Ask a series of questions around the plot: How does this particular event work to advance the plot? How does it not? If the plot is the "meaning" you see in a work, how do specific moments, and indeed specific sentences of that work, contribute to or frustrate your personal process of meaning-making?

There's a classic Monty Python skit about a television "how to" show. In it the host teaches you how to play the flute: "You blow in this end, and you move your fingers over these little buttons here." The "give me a guide to the themes of this book" question is exactly this kind of how-to - both completely accurate and completely useless. Instead, be introspective while you read, and find out how it is that books, to you, carry meaning.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 8:38 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pickmen's Next Top Model makes good points, but I also think it is very helpful, once one has read and thought about a book, to read commentary and, where possible, annotated versions. I've been a serious reader all my life, but still miss some references in books. For example, I've read To Kill a Mockingbird about a zillion times, as it is one of my favorite books ever. And it took me years to figure out the crack, "His food doesn't stick going down, does it?" Which isn't even a tricky reference . . . it just requires an adult understanding that it is basic manners to remember who is providing the hospitality you are enjoying.

Unfortunately, I don't know of a central source to locate this sort of pithy discussion of a book. I'll be interested to see other responses to this question. Here are some of the places I look for more information: 1) published lectures, for example the ones we are tracking in the MeTa book club from the Open Yale curriculum. 2) When available, annotations of interesting books. The annotated Lolita is incredibly helpful, as is the Annotated Alice. 3) Strangely enough, reviews of books at commercial sites like and Barnes& There are some very intelligent readers out there.
posted by bearwife at 8:53 AM on January 5, 2011

Okay, fair point. Here's an add-on, then. Go through the list of Norton Critical Editions of books and order yourself a couple you like. These editions come with introductory essays, explanatory footnotes, and a lot of papers by scholars in the field on particular topics in that book. They're a GREAT way to learn about a particular book, and also about what people look for when they read.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 9:00 AM on January 5, 2011

Cliff's Notes has thousands of books broken down by character, theme, etc.
posted by Flood at 9:55 AM on January 5, 2011

Please for the love of god don't use Cliff's Notes. They are worse than useless.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 10:08 AM on January 5, 2011

Seconding Pickman's Next Top Model that Cliff's Notes aren't even worth skimming.

FYI the Open Yale English courses are here. The lectures on American Novel since 1945 are great.
posted by bearwife at 11:38 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might find some interesting reading among the Newsletters of the Iris Murdoch Society.
posted by BigSky at 6:33 AM on January 12, 2011

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