Reading is an active, engaged exercise. It involves considering the material and connecting it to your life in some way. Asking yourself the following questions while you read will help you connect more deeply to literature. What you learn from these explorations will make you a more effective communicator as you’ll be able to share your thoughts, ideas and feelings in deeper and more meaningful ways.
How does the work you are reading make you feel? Most literature is written to evoke an emotional response. It is one of the clues an author provides to assist the reader in finding the theme, the message or idea behind the story. Unlike fairy tales, the theme is not necessarily meant to teach. A theme presents an idea in a particular way. What we do with that information is up to us.
What scenes, sounds and tastes do you experience? Authors use descriptive language to create vivid, animated pictures in the mind of their readers. Reading is a sensual experience as much as it is a mental exercise.
How do you as a person, or your experiences, connect and intersect with the characters and situations in the story? How do the characters and their lives compare to people and circumstances you’ve encountered in your life? What can you learn about yourself, other people, and life from reading? There is much to be gained from stories beyond the intentional themes depicted in literature. Coming of age on a space station or in Samoa, learning to wield magic, living amongst aboriginal people or in a post-apocalyptic society where everyone is constantly monitored and freedom of choice has been eliminated are a few of the many experiences I have enjoyed or suffered, without lasting consequences, through books.
What do you notice about how the work was constructed? Literary elements, such as the few mentioned below, not only enhance reading pleasure, they provide additional information about the work and the author. There are many styles and literary techniques that can be used to subtly (and not so subtly – think farce) influence, highlight, and support the meaning behind the collection of words on a page. Reading closely, carefully and actively will help you find the following:
- Theme – The main idea that solidifies a work. What techniques or elements does an author use to suggest or highlight the theme? How do the techniques used support the theme? How do these elements contribute to or detract from your experience of the work? Why do you think that is?
- Point of view – The perspective from which the story is being told – first person (story recounted by a character in the story), second person (reader referred to as ‘you’ by narrator), or third person (a narrator who is not one of characters tells the story and may or may not provide the thoughts and feelings of the characters in the story). What is the point of view of the story and how does it affect your experience of the work? How would the story change if it was told from a different point of view? What is the impact of knowing only the thoughts of feelings of one character’ (limited), all character’s (omniscient) or no characters (objective)? Does the point of view alternate in the story? If so, how does that add to or detract from the story?
- Plot – the sequence of events in a story. How is the information being provided (i.e. chronological order, alternating between present action and flashbacks) and how does it impact the reading experience? What picture is being painted? How does it help the overall story to unfold in this way?
- Story – the events or content of work. What do the events say about the characters in the story? How does this compare to your own experience or the experiences of people you know?
- Setting – The time (past, present or future) or place (London, rural America, or the planet Alderaan in a galaxy far, far away) where a story takes place. What does the setting tell us about the way characters look, speak and act? What behaviors do we take for granted that might mean something different in another time and place? Looking for the culturally bound meanings of words and actions can open a story in new and unexpected ways that help us understand better what it means to be human.
- Tone – the overall mood of a piece of literature. What does this say about what the author is trying to convey?
- Symbolism – an object, action or person that has, in addition to its literal meaning, a figurative association that is shared by most people. For instance, the flag of the United States is literally a piece of cloth but it also represents freedom to many people. How does the use of symbolism contribute to your experience and understanding of a literary work? How do you know what the figurative meaning is? How does this relate to the theme?
Even if the content isn’t particularly interesting, studying how an author expresses ideas can be very fascinating and educational beyond the English classroom. Reading in this manner will improve your written (and oral) communication because bringing awareness to the act of reading (or writing) transforms it. The use of any of these or other elements in your writing and speech will provide a richer, fuller communication experience for all parties involved. Think about people you know who relate events in a manner that evokes your emotion and imagination. Listening to such people engages us on many levels. Understanding how to use techniques to enhance your communication will help people engage and interact with you more fully. Even if you aren’t a sales professional, healthcare worker, politician, customer service representative, or teacher, you can benefit from being able to express your thoughts clearly and fully. Knowing your options, consciously selecting how to communicate, and observing your impact will keep you fully in the moment and connected and engaged with others. And, I think, we’d all like to feel more connected – with people as well as the books that we are reading.