How to read and talk about a book?
April 1, 2012 3:26 PM   Subscribe

How do I communicate my thoughts about books I have read?

I used to read a lot of books. Then I went to university and studied a rather dry subject which sucked the joy out of books, and reading became a chore. I was reading for information rather than for pleasure. It has taken me a very long time and a lot of perseverance to get back to a point where I enjoy reading for it's own sake. I want to make the most of this.

Recently I have read a lot of good, interesting books. I've wanted to talk to others about these books but I lack the vocabulary to express exactly what it is that I enjoy. It's very unsatisfying and quite frustrating to be unable to get what is in my head out through my mouth.

Does anyone have suggestions as to how I could expand my knowledge on this topic? I'd like to be able to say to someone "I really loved this book because of X, Y and Z, but I thought some of the aspects of A and B, needed work". I'd also like to be able to analyse a book.

I'm looking for sources, preferably books, which would give me the words to describe what I am thinking, and hopefully give me pointers as to how to actually *read* a novel on a deeper level. My ideal answer would be a book I could refer back to whilst reading something else, that might prompt me to think "Where is the author going with this, what are they doing with the characters, how are they moving the story along?". I have looked for books on literary criticism hoping this would be useful but it appears to be far more advanced than my current comprehension.

If this source was a website it might be something like TV tropes. Can anyone help me learn how to talk about things I have read?

In an ideal world I would go back to university and study English, this unfortunately is not an option.

Thanks in advance!
posted by v.barboni to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
I'd actually look at books designed for book clubs; they often have a list of questions and concerns at the back that offer both vocabulary (like parallel structure) and thought prompts.
posted by spunweb at 3:30 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Former English student here. The best thing you can do is read the non-fiction essays by Borges (many of which are reviews of other authors) and the lectures on literature by Nabokov (many of which are brilliant). And if you happen to read Ulysses (which you should), you should also read Re Joyce by Burgess. These three books will teach you how to read.
posted by milarepa at 3:34 PM on April 1, 2012 [21 favorites]

How much writing have you done about the books that you've read? On the off chance that you're not doing it already, taking notes and writing paragraphs about parts of the book that you find relevant or interesting might help you keep your thoughts organized. Sometimes you have to do a lot of writing about a subject or story to really get to the heart of what is appealing about it. But the more you struggle and practice writing, the easier it will be to articulate yourself through it.
posted by jumelle at 3:40 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Came in to suggest Nabokov's lectures, so I will second them. Read his entire oeuvre: it is a literary education in itself.
posted by trip and a half at 3:49 PM on April 1, 2012

Try reading book reviews (like in the New York Times) for recent things. For the classics, Virginia Woolf was actually an excellent critic, and she writes in the style you talk about (this was good, that needed work) without getting too heady. Well annotated books can also be useful. And TV tropes actually has "literature" examples for most tropes.

It may also help to read books on writing rather than reading. Knowing the ways in which authors try to make a book compelling could give you some language as a reader.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 4:18 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

“How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler is a good guide to a deeper approach to reading.
posted by nfg at 4:28 PM on April 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Also a former English lit student here. For someone who is just getting into literary analysis, I think you can get a gentle introduction to analyzing books by looking at some well-written books on writing itself:

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (my favorite -- examples a'plenty! author walks you through good and bad writing)

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Sin & Syntax

After you look at these books, I think you'll have more fun reading some non-fiction essays and literary criticism by writers.

Good luck. :)
posted by mild deer at 4:54 PM on April 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Like the people above wrote, reading good mainstream book reviewers can help you get a feel for how smart general readers talk about books. Michael Dirda in the Washington Post is particularly good--his book Bound to Please collects a huge number of his reviews on favorite books and writers, and his Classics for Pleasure offers a more systematic approach. Dwight Garner's reviews in the New York Times are also good, if for no other reason than that he will occasionally really hate a book and show you how you can make writing about a bad book interesting as well.

Finally, if that's not enough, try taking a look at some blogs--those tend to be a bit closer to conversations about books than reviews anyway. Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence is the best I know. For a more casual approach, with the bonus of back-and-forth discussion, check out the Morning News's just-concluded Tournament of Books.
posted by Levi Stahl at 6:21 PM on April 1, 2012

I recently read a book called 'How to Read Novels Like a Professor'. I found it more enlightening for me as a writer than as a reader, but it covers all the things you're thinking of.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:54 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

The essays and reviews of V. S. Pritchett are among the smartest, clearest and most "human" of literary commentaries.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:14 AM on April 2, 2012

Best answer: One other note: marginalia.

Buy cheap used books and write in them as you go. Allow yourself to have a conversation with the book: note questions, comments, intriguing passages or lines. Not only does it keep your brain proactive, but it turns reading into an almost physical process. You're engaged with the book.

Here's a little New Yorker piece on the subject.
posted by vecchio at 9:53 AM on April 2, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all for your input.
posted by v.barboni at 2:09 PM on April 2, 2012

vecchio: One other note: marginalia.

This is great advice, one thing I'd note is I found it damn near impossible to overcome my reluctance to mark books permanently (and don't have easy access to a good supply of used books generally where I live) but found I'm making highlights and notes like crazy since getting an ebook reader (Kindle in my case) and they all end up in an easy to export format.
posted by nfg at 7:37 AM on April 3, 2012

If you are reluctant to mark books permanently and you lack an e-reader (I happen to fall into both of these groups, myself), a good practice is to keep a notebook by your side and to build a system of organization for your notes. You can do this with a computer as well--it's just about keeping your mind active, and about preserving the coherent, insightful thoughts that you're likely having during reading and then just not remembering.
posted by BV at 3:39 PM on April 7, 2012

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