>Becoming Discerning Readers-Discerning

>This series on “Reforming Perspectives on Literature: Becoming a Discerning Reader” has defined some terms and looked at reasons why Christians need to be reforming their perspectives on literature. This entry will suggest specifics for becoming more discerning readers.

As a lifelong reader with a longtime interest in literature, I’ve gradually grown in my appreciation for excellence in literature. As a non-traditional college student who spent thirteen years obtaining my degree while working and caring for my family, I had an opportunity to learn about literature from the perspective of an older student with more than average life experience and motivation. I spent years before, during, and after my college degree marathon reading and studying literary classics from different times and cultures as well as books about literature and literary theory. There are many opinions and much advice about how to become better readers. Although my reading and learning journey continues, what I’ve learned and discovered over the years about becoming a discerning reader can be summarized with four primary strategies in a simple paradigm, which I (not too creatively) call “The Four Rs”:

1. Read Carefully

2. Raise Questions

3. Rediscover Classics

4. Recognize Skills

First, let’s discuss reading carefully. I recently viewed a course on the “Art of Reading” in which the professor offers some helpful suggestions on this: set aside an hour to ninety minutes for your first reading in a novel, stop about a third of the way through the novel to assess what you’ve read by asking questions and making predictions, and “pre-read” novels.

“Pre-reading” includes quickly scanning the entire novel to notice things like chapter divisions and formatting, reading introductory material to help you understand the novel, and thinking about the first few sentences of a novel.

You could, for example, pick up the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and read only the first two sentences: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it” (p. 3).

If you stop to think about only those two sentences, what do you learn?

The first thing you might notice is that the dialogue is written in an unusual way with no quotation marks or paragraph breaks. The dialogue is recorded more as stream of consciousness than normal dialogue. I don’t think a first time author could get by with this, but Marilynne Robinson had the strength of her very successful reputation behind her when she wrote Gilead.

What else do these sentences tell us? Recalling your junior high English class, you see that pronoun “I” and you know that this is written in the first person. But you also see the pronoun “you,” which is far less common in novels. Although there are rare novels written in the second person, this obviously isn’t one of them. Since “I” is addressing a particular person (“you”), it’s like a letter. A novel written in the form of a letter is called an epistolary novel.

What have you learned about “I” from these two sentences? “I” is old (or at least believes that); in fact, “I” is dying. But “I” is a Christian who believes in the Lord and life in heaven after death. “I’s” identification of Christ as the “Good Lord” also indicates something about “I’s” character and beliefs.

What have you learned about “you” from these first two sentences? “You” appears to be young, probably a child, perhaps even “I’s” child. Certainly there is a closeness between the two that allows “you” to put what seems to be a smaller hand into the larger hand of “I”. I think “you” is sweet and serious; “you” speaks in the very way I’ve heard my own young children assure me of something they believe about me.

I think you can get quite a bit of information about the novel by carefully considering only the first two sentences!

What do you notice if you flip quickly through the book? You may notice lots of places where space breaks the text. You may even notice some small graphic lines that sometimes occur on the bottom of a page and sometimes on the top of a page. But you won’t see any chapter breaks…until you reach page 217. Now if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like spoilers and you actually have a copy of Gilead in your hands, DO NOT READ THE FIRST SENTENCE ON PAGE 217!

Now that I’ve posted that warning, let’s think about what this chapter break, which is the singular chapter break in the entire novel, might mean. Certainly something significant must happen or be revealed. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

You may not always want to take time for pre-reading or slogging through lengthy and boring introductions, but I think most of us can benefit from reading more carefully. That may mean slowing speed in order to increase comprehension. The advice to set aside some time for a first reading is especially good; this allows you as a reader to enter into the story.

Second, let’s discuss raising questions. Part of reading carefully is to ask questions while you read. Try to think in terms of open-ended questions instead of “yes” or “no” questions. There are many good questions readers can ask about a novel:

What types of things or kinds of people are being either glorified or vilified?
What is true about this work?
How is this work—even if it’s science fiction or fantasy—realistic?
How are the characters authentic?
In what ways do the characters change?
In what ways does the plot progress?
In what ways is the central conflict of the plot resolved?
What feeling or emotions have we experienced?
What have we learned?
How have we changed?
In what ways has the novel brought us closer to others or even to God?

The idea of raising questions makes me think of Makoto Fujimura, who is a highly acclaimed New York City artist who paints shimmering abstracts in an ancient Japanese technique that utilizes natural glues, precious minerals, and crushed gems. He is also a Reformed Christian and an effective advocate of intersecting faith with art for the purpose of cultural renewal. He is a reflective writer who raises important questions about art. What he calls the “500 year” question is a historical look at culture that asks, “What ideas, what art, what vision affects humanity for over five hundred years?” (personal interview “Makoto Fujimura: Refracting Light and Reflecting Grace,” Christian Renewal, July 12, 2006).

Fujimura’s materials are expensive and he compares these exquisite materials to the fragrant oil poured over the feet of Jesus by Mary (whom he refers to as “the quintessential artist”).

“The arts parallel this act of pouring the expensive perfume,” he says. “Is the expense justified in art? In order to answer this question, we must answer not with “why,” but “to whom.” We are either glorifying ourselves or God. And the extravagance can only be justified if the worth of the object of adoration is greater than the cost of extravagance” (Christian Renewal, July 12, 2006). You can read more of Mako’s thoughtful reflections in his book Refractions or on his blog.

Third, let’s discuss how rediscovering classics can help us become more discerning readers.

You may have been bored to tears by studying classic literature in high school or college, but the classics form the backbone of the Western tradition and are part of its great ongoing conversation. Becoming familiar with works that have stood the test of time and have been universally acknowledged as classics helps us understand history and our place in it as well as our affinity with people from every time and place. Because classics function in these ways, I think of them as “place-markers” in the book of Western history.

C.S. Lewis famously advocated the reading of “old books” and recommended interspersing classics with modern novels by reading one in about every three books.

In “The Importance of the Classics,” Louise Cowan’s introduction to Invitation to the Classics,” she summarizes the consensus on the attributes of classics:

1. The classics not only exhibit distinquished style, fine artistry, and keen intellect but create whole universes of imagination and thought.
2. They portray life as complex and many-sided, depicting both negative and positive aspects of human character in the process of discovering and testing enduring virtues.
3. They have a transforming effect on the reader’s self-understanding.
4. They invited and survice frequent rereadings.
5. They adapt themselves to various time and places and provide a sense of the shared life of humanity.
6. They are considered classics by a sufficiently large number of people, establishing themselves with common readers as well as qualified authorities.
7. And, finally, their appeal endures over wide reaches of time.

Leland Ryken writes: “Readers need the classics first of all because these works are foundational…. The history of literature is an ongoing dialogue between individual works and the classics that have preceded them. The resulting body of literature is a huge interlocking family. …To try to make sense of literature without a knowledge of the masterworks is to labor under a handicap—like trying to play basketball with one arm tied behind one’s back. It can be done, but not well” (Realms of Gold, pp. 219-220).

Reading classics helps us recognize the timeless qualities of excellent literature and, therefore, helps us become better writers and readers.

Fourth, let’s discuss recognizing skills.

As imagebearers of the Creator God, we dimly reflect His creativity in our creative endeavors. In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers draws an interesting analogy between the Triune nature of the Creator God and the three-fold natures of human creativity. She extends this analogy to the reader, about whom she writes, “For the reader…the book itself is presented as a threefold being. First: The Book as Thought—the Idea of the book existing in the writer’s mind…. Secondly: the Book as Written—the Energy or Word incarnate, the express image of the Idea. …Thirdly: the Book as Read—the Power of its effect upon and in the responsive mind” (pp. 113-115).

We can grow in our appreciation of literary quality by learning to recognize the creative efforts of the author, by becoming more aware of the author’s idea, the energy in the written word, and the power of its effect upon us.

We become more discerning readers by recognizing elements of fiction and literary techniques that the author uses to convey the story. When we learn more about what makes a good book good, we become more discerning. We’ll examine some basic elements of fiction as well as some literary techniques in our next section.

Thanks for reading!


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