Thursday, September 3, 2009

Reading with a pencil

It was great to get the feedback from yesterday's post. Dialoguing with other writers and bloggers is so much more interesting than just me saying my thing to the great silence of cyberspace.

So the topic: reading critically. I am starting an experiment in which I jot down thoughts that occur to me when I read a book, positive and negative.

Several people commented on how they cannot read like this, and I actually don't know how long I can do this either. And those of you who do read with a pencil tend to focus on the positive. I find that I learn as much from what doesn't work, as what does, so I do both. I hope I'm not being unnecessarily judgmental.

Last night, I was pondering how long I can sustain this exercise; It does seem an unnatural thing to do. But then, maybe it is somewhat natural. After all, I started this experiment because my critical mind kept intruding when I tried to read. Sometimes I can shush it up, but other times it is just such a distraction I can't enjoy the reading.

That was the original reason for me to read this way: to find out what happens if I give in to my critical thinking and not try to push it away. Kinda like if you let your kids have a little bit of ice-cream sometimes so they won't feel deprived and pester you all the time.

Lady Glamis brought up another good point, and that is when a book is published, it has gone through the eyes of the author, the author's early readers, agent, and editor. We should read and enjoy, not read and nitpick. (I am not talking about celebrity books here; just the real books written by real blood, sweat and tears authors.)

A book has to have achieved a high standard to be published, very high standard. But "good" doesn't mean the same to everyone. I used to wonder why there were things in published books that were not very good, and thought that I needed to adjust my own thinking. I still think that my thinking needs adjustment and tweaking--all the time, as long as I am writing and learning--but I also believe that I have put in a lot of work and now have at least some ideas of what works. So when I do see something that doesn't, I take note. Not to be disrespectful to the author, or to feel smug in that I-know-better-than-you-even-though-you-are-published-and-I-am-not manner, or to gripe about how some authors can get away with drivel, but to learn. I know I make enough mistakes for a whole village of writers, but I see no reason why I can't learn from other people's mistakes, even when they don't consider them mistakes.

So, thanks for your comments. Keep them coming. And I will keep you posted on how this book is going.

And oh Cheryl, I am going to let people guess the title. It's not an obscure book. Recent. Well-received.

First person to guess gets a free book.


Lady Glamis said...

More great thoughts! I'm fascinated by your experiment. If I was in reading mode right now I would jump in with you, but I'm too busy writing. (I can't read anything while I'm writing. Sad huh?)

I guess most of the books that I wrote in the margins were classics, and we weren't out to find things that were wrong, necessarily. The classics have been through enough, I think, and they stand in their own right.

For example, The Awakening by Kate Chopin (a novella), is told in a very passive voice. Then there's Tolstoy who loves lots of description, almost too much for some readers. And Moby Dick that Scott has spoken of over on the Lit Lab recently. Too much back story and unnecessary stuff.
I would feel unqualified to point out stuff that I think is "wrong" in the classics.

Current pieces of literature, though, especially work that is close to what I write, I'd be all right trying this out. I think I would learn a lot from it.

Sorry, no guesses on the book. I'm bad at guessing games, hah.

Davin Malasarn said...

This is interesting, Yat-Yee. Is this your first time reading through the book? I do this sort of analysis a lot but it's after I've given a story a once over just for the fun of it first. I bet it depends on the pacing you're going at as well. If your notes are jotted down quickly, I'd imagine it wasn't as disruptive that if you were to pause and reflect longer on everything.

Yat-Yee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yat-Yee said...

Michelle: reading does distract me from writing and I run the risk of sounding like whomever I am reading, but I have to read, or I go into withdrawal.

I see now what you mean. Yes, I feel the same way about you with regards to the classics. Anything that has stood the test of time deserves a higher level of respect. I too don't feel like it's my place to criticize. But for works that are more recently published and are in fields I read a lot of, I think I can learn from this process.

You may guess the title of the book soon enough, when I post more thoughts on it.

Davin: Yes, this is the first time I am reading this book. It is slow moving despite the fact that I jot in very abbreviated forms. But I am going to plod ahead for a while.

I've read books that have impacted me a lot and wanted to go back after the first reading, to find out what makes the writing work so well, but never did. Not sure why. Laziness, most likely. So I'm doing it this way to see what will result.

Yat-Yee said...

...same way *as* you not *about* you. Sigh. Must try not to write when falling asleep.

Lady Glamis said...

No worries! I knew what you meant.

MG Higgins said...

Your experiment really is interesting and I'm excited to find out what you learn from it. Keep us posted!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Two opposing thoughts occur to me:
1)If you read with the pencil ready, you have turned on your critical mind and may not give the story a chance to carry you in its flow.
2)If a story has flaws that alert your critical mind to be aware, it is not the reader but the author who has recruited the pencil police.

Yat-Yee said...

Melissa: I'm just as curious as you are as to where this would lead.

Tricia: you're so right. Take out the pencil and the mind switches to critical mode. BUt I am not sure it's triggered only by flaws though. Some good sentences that make me want to re-read get underlined and commented on as well.

Joni said...

Hi, Y-Y! Thanks for the congrats on the bravery contest -- I didn't even know before you clued me in! (And really, I think your music example made my toes curled. I had a bad drumming performance once that put me in tears; I can't imagine getting back on a stage EVER, let alone then.)

Love this post, too. I'm also one of those who can't help but read analytically and pause at the, "what? wait a minute" sort of moments in writing that doesn't quite work. (I actually had a few of those in Hunger Games, but never mind.) I don't think it's a matter of "not respecting" the book or the author at all. Reading critically helps me become aware of and appreciate what DOES work much more than I would otherwise, too. (Especially symbolism, thematic resonance, and stuff like that that tends to be delivered only subconsciously to those who read only for the story/entertainment.)

Yat-Yee said...

Joni: you're a drummer?! So am I! I played snare drum in marching bands from 6th grade onwards and then went on to play percussion in orchestras. SO now I want to know what martial arts you're doing. I am doing TKD, but wish there were shaolin kungfu schools around here.

I like what you pointed out about the kids of things that make you pause, those things that are only felt and not noticed consciously by most readers. I'll have to see if I can get pass my micro-level analysis to the more macro.

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