“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” Joseph Addison
There are multiple ways to engage with literature – with our mind, our emotions, and our senses – and there are multiple tools that facilitate a deeper understanding of what we read. Employing literary theories and critical reading will initiate that process.
Consider this: how we respond to, and engage with, literature is a model for how we respond to life. The tools of literature are tools that we can apply to our lives outside of school. Connecting, considering and drawing conclusions about what we see, hear, and experience is how we gain knowledge about literature, people, and life in general.
As the quote above suggests, engaging fully in the moment (whether you are reading, speaking with a friend, evaluating an offer of employment, or performing work for your employer) allows you to connect with the object of your attention. This opens up our experience to what is seen and unseen, known and unknown, which will form the basis of our conclusions.
When we lose ourselves in a book, engage in conversation, focus on a puzzle or problem, or allow ourselves to connect, our whole being provides information for us to consider. Our intellect observes many things while we read: how a novel is organized, the word choices and grammatical structures of the author, our emotional and physical reactions, thoughts, and memories. (This is why reading is so important for writers! We learn to become better writers by reading a lot of different authors and genres.) When we speak with others, we listen to the tone of their voice, watch their eyes, notice their bodily movements, gauge their reaction to what we say, and determine if we agree or disagree with their words Considering how something makes you feel emotionally and physically can guide you in knowing if something is creditable or worthwhile. A lot of this happens just below our conscious awareness, but we do it all the time. What is being asked of us with regards to literature (and writing) is to bring that same diligence to our reading. To do that, we must be conscious of what we’re taking in and how we are processing it.
Once you have all the information, gathered through being present, engaged and observant, you can analyze the bits of data individually and as a whole to discover meaning. Identifying patterns in the whole will provide a deeper understanding, based on our beliefs and unique perspectives. Utilizing literary theories may seem strange, but in reality we have applied some of the principles in our own lives many times before. Analyzing the works of others as well as our own writing with one or more literary theories can provide some idea of how our readers process our writing as well as allowing us to think more critically about our own writing. Following are two examples. For an overview of additional theories check out the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- New Criticism – This theory says that the meaning of a work is found in the text itself. Analyzing the literary elements (figurative language, plot, characters) used by an author, individually and as a whole, will inform the reader of the author’s meaning. Applying this level of analysis enables writers to see other perspectives rather than our understanding.
- Biographical/Historical – When we talk to people, everything they say is compared to what we know about them. We contextualize their words to give them meaning beyond the statements themselves. The time and place a person grew up, the size of their family, their life experiences, their hopes and dreams all provide a deeper or different meaning to things people say. With this theory, we can identify the background influences on an author’s writing and this can add dimensions to the story previously unrecognized.
Whenever we pick up a book, we look at the cover and the title, read the flap or back cover, peruse the table of contents, and if still interested, read the first few lines of the book. It’s like buying a car (kick the tires, look at the engine, sit in it, take a test drive) or deciding if you want to try a recipe (read the ingredients, see how long it takes to prepare and cook the item). What do these disparate things have in common? We are thinking critically about what we are doing. This is a skill we use not just in writing; we use it for most everything we do in life. Examining options using critical thinking skills helps us determine meaning and decide what is best in our lives and in our writing.
Engaging with literature is not that different from how we live our lives. Being present and focused no matter what we are doing will add dimensions to our experience and help us to make better decisions and connect more deeply with readers who consume our writing. How do you analyze your own writing and that of other authors?