How can I build my book club skills?
May 16, 2015 12:55 PM   Subscribe

I run a book club with a friend, and I'm always impressed by how deeply and thoughtfully other folks interpret the books we read. I'd like to build this skill, but I'm not sure where to start. Examples of what we've read: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, My Antonia by Willa Cather, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, My Notorious Life by Kate Manning.

About our group: We stay away from pop/pulpy books and read mostly fiction and occasionally some classics. We've run the group for almost two years, and have a core group of members. A few of them have a Master's in lit, and I admire their responses in particular, which often point to the broader implications of the book and how it reflects something in society.

About me: I can think critically about a scientific study or the psychological aspects of characters' motivations, but when it comes to the bigger picture - understanding the author's intent, understanding the contribution to the genre (or lack thereof), or connecting what I've read to current events - I fall short.

Sometimes I'll read reviews on the book to understand more about it, but I always feel like I'm just stealing from another person's idea that I've read. I always qualify these in conversation by "I read a review that mentioned idea X" but I'd like to think critically and thoughtfully on my own. This is a challenge for me. The books aren't hard, but the themes can be far-reaching and complex. I've been reading since I was three and I love books, but I still feel like I miss some things when I read, and I suspect that having a few questions in your mind as you read helps frame some of this as you go. They do this automatically because of their training, and I'd like to have some insight into that.

Aside from earning a Master's in literature, how can I build this skill? I've Googled, but search results always target kids learning book reports : D
posted by onecircleaday to Education (5 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
When you read the reviews (which is good!), try debating the author of the review in your head. Do you agree with the points they're making? Why? What aspects of the original text support or refute those points? Do you think the author would agree with those points? Why?

As you're reading the book, maybe think about what other authors have touched on similar ideas or themes. How do their ideas differ from those of this author? Which author is closest to your own beliefs? Which author is the most different? What do you think the author with the different viewpoint would say about your own beliefs?

Actually, reading a number of authors whose worldviews are much different from your own can really help, because it almost forces you to grapple with their points as you're reading. Not necessarily hate-reading authors with whom you violently disagree, but seeking out works that force you to really engage with the ideas in order to understand the author's point (even if you still end up disagreeing with them) can help you get used to the process of doing so with other works.
posted by jaguar at 1:01 PM on May 16, 2015

How to Read Literature like a Professor (Thomas C. Foster) is an accessible, enjoyable guide to exactly the kind of thing you're looking to do.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:26 PM on May 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Some literary critics are pretty consistent about what they do with a text, so choosing a point of view you'd like to explore with each book isn't a bad idea. You might ask what does the novel say about women or what historical phenomena can you connect to each reading or how does the text work on a rhetorical level (like, is there a story within the story that allegorizes the whole, or is there some pattern to its emotional highs and lows, or how does it persuade you that some characters are good and others bad, and so on).

But to my mind, what's a lot more fun is letting the irrelevant criteria you happen to have as a reader guide you to say things that are more personal, poignant, and unexpected. There are literary critics who actively try to encourage that too, and they suggest cultivating your own sense of your "vita minor"--the things about you that matter but that you would leave off of a résumé--and disregarding all the things in a text that it seems like you're supposed to get. Then, comment instead on what stands out in the mood/moment of your encounter with the text and how it reminded you of this or that odd thing about yourself.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:33 PM on May 16, 2015

Read reviews - I have a degree in English lit and I ALWAYS read things like Sparknotes after reading a book. It just gives you a range of perspectives you may not have considered. Sure, scholarly articles will go deeper and focus more on the social issues and context of the book, but it's really okay to read informed perspectives.

The other thing you should do is look for patterns. Authors intentionally build patterns with words, images, phrases, and themes in order to help you decode the deeper meaning. Look for the things that repeat, and then look for what they have in common. Highlight them, or write them down as you read. Then organise them afterwards.

By noticing those patterns, you can then ask yourself why the author intentionally built those patterns. If you can't figure out the meaning, then just bring the pattern to the group. Something like, "I noticed that the author brings up [word/phrase/symbol/image] several times. What do you think that's about?"'
posted by guster4lovers at 6:39 PM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

onecircleaday: " I'd like to think critically and thoughtfully on my own. "

I think this is a skill that, like anything else, just requires practice. And you shouldn't be ashamed of using training wheels to help you practice -- like reading reviews, scholarly articles, or even just sparknotes. This is what literature students do! They spend years taking in what other people think about books, with professors to guide them, so they can learn to do it for themselves! I'll often scan the sparknotes before I start on a classic novel ... I pay particular attention to the notes about motifs. I get the plot, the character, the overarching themes, pretty easily by myself, but noticing the motifs the author uses often requires multiple close readings if you're reading alone. So I skim the motifs section and see that light/dark contrasts are a frequently-used motif, and that the author uses blood to stand in for fertility, or whatever, and then when I'm reading those things jump out to me and deepen my understanding of the theme. (I'm also not shy about marking up my hard copies of books, and making highlights in my kindle, so I can revisit things ... but also just the act of marking them makes them stick in your head more.) When I read "The Luminaries" for my book club, I had read a couple of reviews in advance that talked about the structure of the book and how the structure itself was symbolic, and I definitely got more out of the book than I would have otherwise just by knowing that in advance. I wouldn't have gotten the zodiac theme carried into the structure if it hadn't been pointed out; knowing it was there, I could see how some things that might have annoyed me reading "blind" were actually extremely artful. Maybe still not to my taste, but carefully constructed to fit the author's purpose.

One thing I totally stumbled in to, in my own book club reading, was with The Goldfinch, because I am not a very visual thinker and not super-knowledgeable about art, was I started noting very early on every painting that was mentioned in the novel, and then googling them to look at them. There was (annoyingly!) no website where I could see all the paintings she mentioned already curated, and I was annoyed that the internet had not already created this resource for me, so I started putting sticky notes in my book and then, when I finished reading for the night, going back and looking up all the paintings and I made a Pinterest board of them. It ended up getting shared around on the internet and that was pretty cool! But for me it totally deepened my understanding of the novel and really highlighted a lot of themes and motifs that I probably wouldn't have noticed otherwise -- the way death hangs so close to young men; the fleetingness of beauty; how individual characters were limned and deepened by their choices in art to own or enjoy -- and it made me appreciate the book way, way more and enter into its themes far more deeply than most other book club books I read.

I've done something similar (though not nearly so comprehensive!) with Game of Thrones, where I've been carefully making predictions as I read each book (because people said they're so unpredictable!). And I've made a practice this year of summarizing each book I read in three words or less. And with some novels, I've been e-mailing my friends my thoughts on the book as I go along ("Does Inez die? Imma be pissed if Inez dies. Don't tell me. But Imma be pissed.") -- not necessarily deep thoughts, just things that strike me. Each of these exercises, taking a moment to carefully think over and summarize what I've just read, has helped sharpen my thinking on the books I've read. It sort-of depends on how large the chunks are that you read at once, but maybe after every evening's reading, you could jot down (or text yourself!) a quick note with your thoughts on what you just read. Sometimes just writing "whatever" is too wide open -- constraining yourself to an artificial format, like "I must write three haikus about each 100 pages," sometimes really sharpens your thought by forcing you to focus. (Picking just three words for each book, I have to really think about the essence of the book and what I will take away from it!)

Sometimes writing amazon reviews is helpful, too -- stopping to think about why I liked or didn't like a book, and how to explain to other people who are wondering whether to read it, without giving away plot points. That's a really good exercise, especially for thinking about characterization or the author's writing style.

I also really like to borrow my sister's copies of novels -- she has a masters in literature and she marks them up BUT GOOD with her own thoughts in the margins. She often focuses on just one or two themes in her marginal notes, but it is fascinating to me to see another mind at work digesting the text (especially one I know so well!). That's probably a little trickier to find but maybe you'll get lucky at a used book shop. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:15 PM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

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