Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

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Solute
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Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by Solute »

I have recently taken to reading literature: something I haven't done since middle school. In those days, I would easily read a couple books a week. After middle school, most of my reading has been non-fiction—historical, essays, or technical. Non-fiction writing is usually clear and concise with no subtext; however, literature is oven rich in symbolism and meaning hidden to the unknowing reader. Unfortunately, I seem to be that unknowing reader missing what makes literature enjoyable. For example, many of the short stories in Dubliners seem to go over my head. I will read a story, then look at an analysis online and see that I've missed or not understood much. Joyce is renowned as a great author, and I seem to be missing what made him popular. In a similar vein, I read The Metamorphosis by Kafka which I understood better but still missed much.

Does anybody have suggestions on books that teach you to read literature better/deeper? Any tips for deeper reading? I would rather be a reader capable to producing analysis on a book, than the reader who needs an essay to find the deeper meaning.

Hristo Botev
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by Hristo Botev »

This is the classic text, written by the same guy that put together the "Great Books of the Western World" program: https://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Book-Cl ... 0671212095.

I also recently read this one, which is a bit more current (not that it matters), and I found it very helpful in its discussion of finding themes, spotting symbols, archetypes, etc.: https://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Literat ... HM6Z7GBZ1F

ETA: When you're dealing with great works of literature that work on many different levels, don't beat yourself up for not totally "getting it" the first time you read something; no one does, and you're not meant to. Just read the book (though I'd recommend using Adler's approach when you do, or some hybrid version of it), and be content knowing that you're better off for having read it than had you not. And if you aren't getting anything from the book, then put it down and move on to the next one. Also realize that when you're dealing with the truly great writers, every word that's in there is there for a reason; there is no filler. That can be really intimidating when you're reading something like Dostoyevski, and you can damn near drive yourself crazy by trying to over analyze ever word, every punctuation mark, etc. And double that anxiety when you're reading something in its original language.

Also, as a personal rule, when it comes to the literature I read for my own enjoyment (which is all literature I read these days), I don't really engage in any sort of criticism--I assume that the writer is smarter than me (not hard to do) and has something important to say that I want to hear, and it's my job to figure out what that thing is and why that thing might be relevant/applicable in my life; I'm not interested in picking apart the message or the manner in which its conveyed. I leave that for the academics.

Also, I've never read Joyce, and that's because I've heard so many times how NOT enjoyable he is to read. Perhaps I'll get around to him someday, but he's pretty down on my reading list.

Finally, I highly recommend a book club (or book clubs); and the more diverse the backgrounds and education levels of the participants the better. There's nothing better than coming to book club thinking you really "got" the book, only to have someone come who got something that is just 180 degrees different than what you got, as if they read a completely different book, and you realize he's got the better take on it.

George the original one
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by George the original one »


Alphaville
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by Alphaville »

George the original one wrote:
Fri Dec 11, 2020 5:50 pm
Penguin annotated classics. https://www.penguin.com/static/pages/cl ... isting.php
i second this for dubliners, which i read in a course

i have more to say about the rest but it might turn out a mini-essay i can't write right now

but tldr for what im thinking would be "read more, read the classics". i'll elaborate later.

Campitor
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by Campitor »

You have to read classical literature deliberately - focused attention is a must if you want to extract the lessons.
  1. Look for the who, what, where, when, and why.
  2. Try to put yourself into the mind of the author. Why is he writing this?. What lesson is he imparting? How do these ideas and actions apply to other circumstances or real world events?
  3. When you finish a chapter, ruminate on it.
  4. Write down your observations while reading and when ruminating- don't use a computer. Pen/Pencil and paper is a must. Physical writing is more effective at anchoring ideas and memories than typing notes on a computer unless you're a super visual person. Retention will allow you to grok the book as a whole instead of a bunch of discrete paragraphs. Some people find transcribing their notes to a computer also helps - you can index and categorize your notes so you can re-read something later during those light-bulb moments.
  5. Re-read a chapter or the entire book if you're not getting anything. Sometimes you have to sleep on it.
It takes many hours of reading and active analysis to get good at it - there are no shortcuts. Passive reading is your enemy. And the book club recommendation is a good thing - it's helpful to get other people's observation on the same book. Just make sure the book club isn't filled with dilettantes.

Miss Lonelyhearts
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by Miss Lonelyhearts »

Sample widely. If you’re not enjoying one classic author, try another. Read what strongly interests you.

Reread. Metamorphosis and The Dead will mean more to you now than before you read them. Some of the analyses will seem brilliant; others will now seem hokum. That’s progress.

Focus on the paraphraseable sense of the text before trying to grok any “deeper” meaning. The construction of a “deeper” meaning is at least in part a collaboration between you and the author. The author’s contribution is the text. Understanding what the text says is job one. This is the main “doing your homework” of literary study. What it means can be puzzled over later.

Annotated and footnoted editions are worth checking out.

For Shakespeare, highly recommend David Bevington’s
Complete Shakespeare. Old editions very cheap.

Two opinions on reading lit crit/analysis. One, even (especially?) if you want to write it yourself, avoid it for now. Save secondary sources for when you’ve run out of great primary sources. Two, even (especially?) if you want to write it yourself, read as much of it as you can.

ertyu
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by ertyu »

Hm, most people here seem to think you should read the classics. While the classics are free and are classics for a reason, I disagree. Imo, to understand literature, one needs to know its social and cultural context. For instance, I would never be able to appreciate that a certain statement makes a character unusually courageous unless I knew that people of their standing weren't to presume to say those kinds of things to people in authority. If you read contemporary literature, you by definition know more of the context: the social norms, the expectations, the implied power relations between the characters. You will have an easier time interpreting characters' actions. An american black girl saying something to a white dude would mean a different thing in 1850, in 1950, and in 2020, even if the line itself is identical.

So I would start with contemporary literature. You'd have to set aside the "popcorn genres" like thrillers romances fantasy and the like, and go for actual literary novels (*)

(*) yes I am aware it is possible for a thriller, a romance, or a fantasy novel to have literary value, don't come after me.

An added advantage to reading contemporary novels is that it will tell you not how people different from you had it in the past, but how people different from you have it in the present. Pick a book by someone not like yourself - this might be someone of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, etc. The purpose of literature is to expand our understanding and compassion - to make us see the world from the point of view of someone different and in that way to make our own world larger. The best way to do that, imo, is by reading contemporary literature.

rref
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by rref »

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Last edited by rref on Tue Jan 05, 2021 9:59 am, edited 1 time in total.

ertyu
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by ertyu »

This is a separate question. OP was asking for tips on developing their ability to understand literature in depth. My answer was that one is more likely to be able to do this if one has better understanding of context and social norms. Whether developing empathy towards people in the past is more worthwhile than developing empathy towards people different from you in the present is a separate question. I happen to think that developing empathy towards people different from you in the present is more worthwhile. I can explain why, but that isn't relevant to OP. OP wants to develop their ability to understand literature, and starting with literature where the characters are closer to oneself in time makes this easier. No one argues that one should read current literature to the exclusion of the classics.

Alphaville
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by Alphaville »

ok i'll try to elaborate a bit as i go.

first, i'm not recommending to read the classics as homework, duty, commandment, etc. i mean, screw the classics. some stuff is boring. personally, i hate me some shakespeare (some is great, some i find unreadable and too wordy. but i digress). of course shakespeare is modern--i meant go back to the greeks, etc. e.g. the iliad! some sweet ultraviolence to be found there. or sappho, wow, more ultraviolence of a difference sort. love and war, what else do you need? haha.

but when i said read the classics it was just as the conclusion of an idea i had not yet presented.

the idea is this: literature is not really about "life," but about literature. it's not a manual for living or life lessons (but some of it is), it's not a document of "what really happened" (though some tries to be), it doesn't need translation or reduction to "reality" or "ideas" or "the thing that it's really about."

if that was the thing, then we wouldn't need literature, we'd just need a series of recipes and admonitions, like "be nice to your old mother" or "always do what's right" or "the good is the beautiful" and shit like that. rules. dumb ones ("12 rules for life" lmao).

yes some of literature is the result of people trying to work out problems, some of it is the result of people trying to remember things, some of it is people trying to compete with others or become immortal or entertain people or pay their alimony or gain favor at the court or skewer their enemies or any number of things. it really depends on each case and it doesn't completely matter.

the point is, literature does not need to be "translated" into "something else" by "deep" anything, like "the real truth is found at the bottom of this sand pile, if you dig deep enough you'll find it." no. there is no big secret really. it's all surface. it's words.

so you can stop digging. a lot of literary interpretation is a bunch of crap written for the employment of academics. they just use "theory" for their own (often nefarious) ends.

so, im not here to say "you must read this" or "you must read that," and "this is what it all really means."

but my first hard reading suggestion would be to have a look at "against interpretation", a great little essay by my main girl susan sontag.

the things she says there others maybe said before, but she says them best. it's short, it's fun, it's delicious, and it's open-ended--it ends with a proposition that's really a question. i'm not going to reduce her fine prose into my incoherent mumblings: check her out for yourself. check her out and maybe you find other great stuff in that book of essays (the book was named after that essay). she was great. one of our best critics and someone who can actually teach you to read better.

so, maybe begin there.

ok so the 2nd part of what i wanted to say was that, if literature is not really about something else buried deep, then what is it really about? well... in a way (but not in every way), it's just about literature.

new stories are made up of old stories, new poetry is made of bits of old poetry, new history relies on old history, new religions are made of old religions, new movies are made of old movies, new games go back to old games, and we have this constant commerce with the past that creates a reality of its own, which some nerds in the late xx century liked to call "intertextuality," but you don't have to. it's just the idea that books are made of other books, and language is made of language (language is also a virtual reality, but i digress again).

so, yeah, literature is not "about" reality so much as it is its own kind of virtual reality with its own set of interactions and "discourses" and ideologies and moralities and things that repeat themselves, battle it out, go away, return, etc. (and yes, it also refers to or correlates to other things outside of it. but that's not what makes it literature.)

so the reason i said "read the classics" was not as some tedious chore for moral edification, but as a way to gain wider (not deeper) understanding of what's going on and who is talking to whom at other levels. or to put it simply, to "accumulate references" so that you might more easily know some of the stuff that's going on.

a good illustration of this you can find in an old essay by tears eliot, "tradition and the individual talent" which i think might be out of copyright already and you can find free on the internet.

a "deeper" (oh no, i said that) and crazier development of this idea you can find in harold bloom's classic "the anxiety of influence" which reads like a man on a cocaine binge saying too-clever things about dead and living poets, but he was really clever and read a lot so there's that. don't be afraid to throw it into the fire in frustration if you must but at least take a look at that erudite crazy cokehead critic. (ok i don't know if he was a cokehead but wow he took some ideas and really ran with them like, well...)

i have more things re: recommendations etc. but im running out of space here.

Alphaville
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by Alphaville »

ok so i went to the store and after returning had a small epiphany of the shower. it works a bit like this:

say you take a person who doesn't know math, and you try to teach them differential calculus.

their head explodes!

but you teach them basic arithmetic, geometry, algebra and trigonometry--suddenly calculus is a piece of cake because it's built on a foundation of previous knowledge. it just makes sense.

literature is also built on a foundation, and that's the history of literature, all the stuff that writers read before saying "oh, this stuff is cool, i want to be a writer too."

so it helps to know the history of literature a little bit, and see what came from what.

this is not to say things don't have their own contemporary context, or that hermeneutics is useless. it helps to know history, and philosophy, and religion, and to be able to place a writer in their social, historical, political, ideological, theological, or psychological context. sure.

e.g. it helps to know a bit of ireland's history and situation when joyce wrote dubliners. e.g. joyce was obsessed with irish politics, and their subjection to britain, and when he was in trieste teaching english apparently that's all he talked about with his students. he had a very pessimistic view of life in dublin and couldn't tolerate it, so he fled. twice!

and if you throw in a bit of his biography, and know, say, about his relationship with his mother and father, or who his wife was and how he met her, that helps "enrich" things too. it's not that it's necessary, or "the real meaning," it just adds fun to the experience, if you're interested in that particular virtual reality game. vivid colors! high definition! and what not.

some people will use those bits of information to psychoanalyze, to reduce, to translate, to moralize, to destroy--for money and academic employment. but if you read that sontag essay i suggested you'll see that this sort of "analysis" misses the whole point of the whole game. moneygrubbing killjoy eggheads.

anyway for a survey of western literature i wholeheartedly recommend erich auerbach's "mimesis" which is a hegelian view in which he does see a "deeper meaning", and he traces that enterprise of the "spirit" from the odissey and the bible all the way to virginia woolf. ultimately for me it doesn't matter if his hegelian paradigm is true or not, and i don't believe that history is going anywhere in particular, but the way he takes a piece of language and how it operates in one era after another after another, in a fabulous survey, is a magnificent exercise and a monument to the whole enterprise of reading and writing books.

the funny part of this story is that he apologized for it! he was exiled during the war and away from specialized libraries so he basically just wrote... and wrote a glorious thing. silly prof! non-specialists are the best people.

other things i'd recommend reading, to remember that this is all a game:

-cervantes' own intro to don quixote (he came from a time when reading books was rightfully seen as a waste of time)
-thorstein veblen's "the theory of the leisure class" (he explains how wasting time became a pecuniary virtue)
-don quixote, of course, because lol

and for another great list of highly readable books, borges's "personal library" where he briefly reviews about 100 or so of his favorite things.

i got more to say about "required reading" vs "follow your bliss." tears eliot gets into that a little bit i think in "the function of criticism" which is another of his essays, if i am wrong i will correct this later.*

anyway borges (where i first found mention of veblen, btw) used to be a teacher and he refused to force anyone to read anything because he said that killed the joy of reading. i strongly second that. so when i say "read the classics" i don't mean it as an obligation. but i mean: instead of reading blogs by goofy stoic bros, check out seneca first. i.e. go to the source. it's ok if you skip seneca and prefer the stoic bros, but they might try to sell you vitamins or courses or some other stupid shit :lol:

the "sources" however is not merely greek or roman stuff.

e.g a lot of the best contemporary science fiction rests on the foundation (no pun here, no asimov) of the great and greatly damaged philip k. dick, who wrote in a hurry and on amphetamines to, yes, to pay for alimony he couldn't afford. his dystopic visions and his paranoia and dissociations are part and parcel of how we see the world today.

anyway, enjoy reading! that's the main stuff.

* eta: yes, that's the one! and btw it's the same title as an essay by his predecessor in the field, mathew arnold (a victorian) with which old possum was in time-traveling literary dialogue/competition/something. intertext! anxiety of influence! hahaha.
Last edited by Alphaville on Sat Dec 12, 2020 12:26 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Solute
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by Solute »

Hristo Botev wrote:
Fri Dec 11, 2020 4:45 pm
This is the classic text, written by the same guy that put together the "Great Books of the Western World" program: https://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Book-Cl ... 0671212095.

I also recently read this one, which is a bit more current (not that it matters), and I found it very helpful in its discussion of finding themes, spotting symbols, archetypes, etc.: https://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Literat ... HM6Z7GBZ1F
George the original one wrote:
Fri Dec 11, 2020 5:50 pm
Penguin annotated classics. https://www.penguin.com/static/pages/cl ... isting.php
I will look into these thanks.
Campitor wrote:
Fri Dec 11, 2020 7:08 pm
Just make sure the book club isn't filled with dilettantes
That will be difficult as every book club I enter will increase the dilettante count by one. ;)
Miss Lonelyhearts wrote:
Fri Dec 11, 2020 11:21 pm
Reread.
Makes sense.
Alphaville wrote:
Sat Dec 12, 2020 8:04 am
a lot of literary interpretation is a bunch of crap written for the employment of academics. they just use "theory" for their own (often nefarious) ends.
Taleb is that you?
Alphaville wrote:
Sat Dec 12, 2020 8:04 am
"against interpretation", a great little essay by my main girl susan sontag.
Interesting essay. Seemed a bit hypocritical at some points but was a thinker. I appreciate the two large responses. They have given me a lot to think about.

I appreciate everyone who has give me advise so far. In general, I previously enjoyed reading for pleasure and want to develop my ability to understand writing. Enjoyment will come before criticism for sure as that is my main motivation—analysis is just a side benefit.

Alphaville
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by Alphaville »

Solute wrote:
Sat Dec 12, 2020 12:05 pm
Taleb is that you?
nah, im my own literature phd dropout disgusted by the mla

i do however like taleb a lot, but he says a few things about nietzsche i disagree with.

--

eta if mythical criticism appeals to you check out good old northrop frye. he's out of fashion now and i think he overdid the theorizing a bit, but unlike others he knew his stuff both wide & deep. well worth a read.
Last edited by Alphaville on Sat Dec 12, 2020 12:31 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Solute
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by Solute »

ertyu wrote:
Sat Dec 12, 2020 2:16 am
Imo, to understand literature, one needs to know its social and cultural context.
Why? Is this not an admission of an authors poor quality? To me, a great piece of writing is something that can invoke an emotion or feeling throughout time. For example, American slaves enjoyed the story of Exodus despite a lack of knowledge of the social and cultural context of fertile crescent cultures and Egyptian military strength. The yoke of slavery and the desire to be free resonated with people across time and culture. I lack a deep understanding of Victorian England; however, Pride and Prejudice is still a fantastic story. Elizabeth's initial refusal of Mr. Darcy's proposal is admirable because readers know that the Bennet family is of lower social and financial status while Darcy is much higher. That dynamic is clear in the story. Elizabeth's upright attitude and moral character can be admired without knowing her actions as a women in her time would be unusual or scandalous.

Alphaville
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by Alphaville »

Solute wrote:
Sat Dec 12, 2020 12:30 pm
To me, a great piece of writing is something that can invoke an emotion or feeling throughout time.
start with the iliad, i swear. those egomaniacs weren't so different from us. :lol:

and yeah, read "mimesis". that's as good as it gets.

--

also there's a great little documentary i watched some time ago about the role of drama in greek democracy that's just fantastic. i'll see if i can find for you....

oh hell yeah here you go:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=FAkLTWQUbG8

7Wannabe5
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by 7Wannabe5 »

I highly recommend reading literature for pleasure. If you want to puzzle about symbols get a math textbook.

That said, you could start with contemporary literature that has been recognized as being of high quality, then when you find an author you enjoy try to search for earlier influences. After reading the earlier influences down a few levels, you could try to read back up line of influence to some other contemporary writers.

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Dream of Freedom
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Re: Deeper reading/Understanding literature better

Post by Dream of Freedom »

I'm by no means an expert in analyzing literature. It seems to me though that while some of it needs analyzing the majority of it doesn't. Sure if you're reading something complex like Steppenwolf you will find all kinds of meanings. Something written by a philosopher to make point like Atlas Shrugged or Thus Spoke Zarathustra are meant to make you think. Some works represent advancements in the art as a whole for example Don Quijote is less impressive if you don't understand how it pokes fun at what was written before it and why it was the first modern novel. For the most part though just enjoy yourself and if you feel like it read up on the author himself and the time period if you think it would add color to your experience.

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