Friday, 7 May 2010

Critical Reading?

This is a topic that has been playing on my mind for a couple of months now. See, there was a kerfuffle a little while back about whether book reviewers can be classed as 'normal' readers anymore. The general consensus was that this isn't possible - because book reviewers critically read their books.

This got me thinking then about critically reading - how and when I do it; why I do it; whether it improves my reading experience; whether I conduct the same criticism for all books?

Let me give some examples to illustrate these points. I was always encouraged by my parents and an English teacher I adored to think about WHY I enjoyed the books I read. This English teacher - one Ms. Clarke (the first person who encouraged me to think that I could write) - read my reading journal on a weekly basis, and I would offer up quotes for her and favourite passages that we could discuss at a later stage. She also involved me in the 1994 Carnegie award, when Theresa Breslin won for 'Whispers in the Graveyard' - I was given each of the books that had been nominated and had to review them. There the seeds of my blogging began!

So, for me, as I read most books I will be analysing whether the narrative works, if I enjoy the dialogue, if the characters have realistic motivations. All of these matters will go through my thoughts - maybe not in a clearly defined way, sometimes just in a 'Oh! I like this scene of dialogue!' way.

I say "most" books because there are certain genres that I read purely for the comfort - and have found it exceptionally hard to put thoughts together as to why I like the novels in question! This is mainly the chick lit genre - in a lot of cases, the prose is deliberately light and fast-paced, with little sophistication (there are obviously exceptions to this!) The characters can be very cliched, and the plots have holes you can drive trucks through. And yet I don't want to be scathing and critical in reviews of these novels, because they are genuinely what my soul needs at times. Sometimes you have to read fluff, especially after some serious and heavy-going books.

I have to say - at times, trying to read critically has disturbed my reading rhythm. Here I use The City & The City by China Mieville as my example. I deeply wanted to simply immerse myself in the experience of such an intelligent and exciting novel, but ended up pausing at points to jot down notes and quotes that I wished to use in my review at a later stage. I know some book reviewers who feel incapable of reading a book critically on a first pass - they need to tackle a book twice, the first to get a general sense of the story and the second to look at the details which will make up the review.

Having discussed a few personal thoughts with you about my own process, I would love to hear from other book reviewers across all genres. For those who read and review only chick lit, which details of the novels do you focus on? For everyone, do you follow the same pattern in your critical reading? Do you have particular habits, use any props (post-it notes etc.)?

I open the floor to my colleagues.


  1. I must admit that I try and read as if I'm not going to write a review but it's easier said than done. I do find myself mentally writing a few bits and pieces as I turn the pages. On the occassions when I just get whisked into the story I'll go back and re-read certain parts afterwards. You know, I'd never really thought about the process before.

  2. I must admit that I started getting into this a while back and started over analysing what I was reading, but I found that I just wasn't enjoying the books I picked up. So, out the window with that as I want to enjoy what I read before anything else.

    I will have a good think about my reviews when I write them though - I want to point out what I enjoyed and also what didn't work as well for me. BUT, critical reviewing just isn't me, I'd much rather give an honest opinion of what I enjoyed/didn't enjoy about the book without getting into ridiculous amounts of detail. It's also something I don't like to read in a review and it just puts me off reading reviews from those sorts of reviewers.

    From my point of view the average reader doesn't want to read about too many specifics, they want a fairly spoiler free review telling them why the reviewer enjoyed/didn't enjoy the book. Plus, using a paragraph or two in a review as an example of what works/doesn't really grates me.

    On the other hand, just saying a book rocks or sucks without giving some reason is just pointless. There needs to be some examination of the content, but not too over the top.

    I think that a reader should come away from a review and be able to make the decision themselves based on what the reviewer said they liked/didn't like about the book. They shouldn't have other peoples perceptions of a book shoved down their throats - not everyone enjoys the same stuff!!

  3. Hi there,
    Another interesting angle on your thoughts is reading books as an author, and whether or not you can switch off the writer in you.
    For me as an example, I tend to enjoy reading books in the genre that I like to write. Some of that is keeping my eye on the competition, and some of it is me going 'Ohh, that's a great line. I wish I wrote that' in pure envy, and the other part is me just reading to be entertained. I don't consciously switch those parts on and off, they're kind of there all the time - so from your point as a reviewer, I imagine it's pretty similar. You will feel the inner reviewer in you identify themselves when something that you've read has woken them up.
    It's all subconscious suggestions triggered by a multitude of emotions that only magpies can truly appreciate, apparently.

  4. I didn't used to read critically at all - I'd just consume a book without thinking about it. But then I started reading reviews, and started trying to write a book of my own, and I realised just how much I was missing. Now I try to think about a book as I'm reading it; I will read other reviews and commentaries; and I will read up on the author. I used to think doing this would reduce my enjoyment, but it's actually increased it - I get far more out of the book; and a big change: I can actually remember things about the book afterwards!

    I don't think I could ever make the commitment to being a proper reviewer and blogger - I simply don't have the time or focus. I read critically and jot down my thoughts for my own enjoyment. But I have started to do things like mark pages with post-its and make notes of things as they occur to me. With a big book especially, it can be nigh on impossible to re-find the section you want to otherwise.

    I agree - with certain types of books it's harder to find anything to say about them. If they're meant to be light and fluffy, there seems little point trying to do a critical analysis on them. Though I suppose they will vary in quality and in how far they achieve their aims.

  5. For as long as I can remember, I have never had a single-track approach to reading a text. This is especially true after earning two degrees in cultural history - What are the symbols embedded in the text? How is the text organized? What biases are there? - but it's something I had to apply to fiction as much as I did non-fiction.

    But this is not to say that this is not fun. If anything, it's more exhilarating than mere passive reading, because so much of the brain is working at different levels at once. I'm so used to it that only when I read a work that doesn't contain any challenges, doesn't have beautiful prose or dynamic characterizations, or doesn't appear to try to weave it together into an intriguing argument/plot do I disengage from the work. Some people disengage because there's "too much work" involved in processing the text; I do so when there's too little.

    But this doesn't mean that when I write critical commentaries that they aren't "accessible" to readers. I suspect my recent commentaries on the Dune, WoT, and SOIAF series are interesting to several types of readers at the same time, for different reasons, because of what is explored there. But enough of talking about what I've written. Time to wonder when more online commentators will be less self-conscious about what they do and why they do it. Is this some sort of British thing, since most of the people posting about this type of topic lately live in the UK? :P

  6. Thank you for the carefully considered comments on this subject! All of them definitely give me food for thought.

    @Esssjay: It is only recently that I realised I even had a process, and it has developed to something essential to my reviewing over the last few months. This was partly what inspired my blog post about critical reading. I haven't tried to read a book without considering what I like and don't like, in all honesty! Maybe I should give it a go, just to see whether I can anymore...

    @Mark: It is interesting that you consider reviewing from the point of view of the reader. I must admit that if I haven't read a book but I'm interested in seeing what other people thought, then bite-sized reviews are what I look for. But if I have read and have strong feelings about a book, I will dig out some of those real in-depth reviews that analyse in great detail.

    @Darren: That is a great point, and thanks for stopping by. It is interesting to hear that you will read books with an author's eye these days. I know some authors refuse to read any books in the genre in which they write for fear they will inadvertantly plagiarise! I am not entirely sure I could ever shut off the part of my brain that critically reads a book after the last four months. Even with my light and fluffy reads, I find myself folding down pages to mark passages I want to return to in a review.

    @Rachel: I 100% agree with you that I now remember far more about the books I read! Secondary characters remain with me for longer; details and subplots are crystal clear. For me, this is the biggest benefit of the critical reading, because I read so many books that before I started reviewing them I would struggle to remember much at all!

    @Larry: Hmm, I wonder whether all people with an academic background are more inclined to read critically? Having done English Literature way back in A Level, but nothing since then, I struggled at first to analyse texts when I started reviewing because it wasn't something I do as part of my work life.

    I have certainly found your commentaries on the WoT of great interest (and I would call them commentaries rather than reviews, in all honesty), because they bring to the fore factors of the novels that I didn't even consider while I was reading them.

    I don't think it is necessarily a British thing, it is more a 'me' thing: I am still so fresh and new to reviewing that I am analysing what I am doing and why I am doing. This is partly thanks to the shock of realising I have to provide decent content (and therefore need to work out how to do this!) and partly because I want to do the best job possible.

    Again, thanks to all for stopping by!

  7. There is that as well, but I just have seen similar things from Mark Newton, Gav, James Long, and a few others in recent weeks, so I had to make that :P comment :D

    And yes, I do think some of it depends upon one's academic background/training. Right now, I'm trying to resist the temptation to review Peter Burke's 1997 book, Varieties of Cultural History, in part because I'm out-of-practice in my former field (I earned my MA 12 years ago next week) and in part because it would need a more specialized audience than the more catholic one (pun intended, considering my personal background) that reads my reviews, commentaries, interviews, etc. on fiction. But I may try, since the book is more for those curious about the field. Maybe this weekend or next.

  8. One of the reasons I started reviewing was to get myself to read critically more - I tend to get into lazy habits with genre books, and that's been much less frequent when I remind myself "I could write about this". Most of what I've found myself looking at comes under the rough heading of "where does this fit into literature?"

    I often jot down notes, if I'm on the sofa at home to read something in 1-2 sittings, but I don't use any actual processes.

  9. I can't help but read critically but I do try and make a conscious effort not to, at least when it comes to genre fiction. With each book I read for review I'm more interested in how that book makes me feel, my gut reaction to it, so to speak.

    When reviewing a book I don't like to have any critical analysis in there at all. I'm all for that level of reviewing but it just doesn't suit the tone of what I want to put out there. I think it would be too close to what I do for a living to spend that much time analysing each book I read.

    I don't write down notes as I go along either. Like I said, I want any review I write to be about my gut feelings on what I've read and I feel writing notes as I go along would take away from that. The only exception to this would probably be a quote I might want to have in a review or something about the book I would want to ask the author in an interview.

    Still, it's a struggle to not read fiction critically. I've "worked with words" in one way or another all my adult life and that makes it difficult to switch off the "critical" side of my brain.