How to Read Stories--You're probably doing it wrong

There are whole books out there about how to read like a professor or a writer, or how to speed-read and still remember every word. For the most part, you can discard all of them. Studies have shown speed readers are frauds—the faster they read the less they comprehend and remember. The professors suggest applying the wacky theories they use to write their scholarly articles, theories which serve to cast readers out of the story into some abstract realm of symbols, psychological forces, or politics. I find the endeavor offensive.

Writers writing about how to read like a writer are operating on good faith. They just tend to be a bit deluded. Literature is very much like a magic trick, but of course it’s not real magic. They like to encourage people to stand in awe of great works and great passages—something I frankly don’t need any encouragement to do (what is it about the end of “Mr. Sammler’s Planet”?) But to get to those mystical passages you have to read a lot of workaday prose, even in the work of the most lyrical and crafty writers. Awe simply can’t be used as a reading strategy.

Good fiction is like a magic trick because it’s constructed of small parts that our minds can’t help responding to holistically. We read a few lines and all the sudden we have a person in mind; after a few pages we find ourselves caring about what happens to this person. Writers often avoid talking about the trick and the methods and strategies that go into it because they’re afraid once the mystery is gone the trick will cease to convince. But even good magicians will tell you well performed routines frequently astonish even the one performing them. Focusing on the parts does not diminish appreciation for the whole.

The way to read a piece of fiction is to use the information you've already read in order to anticipate what will happen next. Most contemporary stories are divided into several sections, which offer readers the opportunity to pause after each, reflecting how it may fit into the whole of the work. The author had a purpose in including each section: furthering the plot, revealing the character’s personality, developing a theme, or playing with perspective. Practice posing the questions to yourself at the end of each section, what has the author just done, and what does it suggests she’ll likely do in sections to come.

In the early sections, questions will probably be general: What type of story is this? What type of characters are these? But by the time you reach about the two/thirds point they will be much more specific: What’s the author going to do with this character? How is this tension going to be resolved? Efforts to classify and anticipate the elements of the story will, if nothing else, lead to greater engagement with it. Every new character should be memorized—even if doing so requires a mnemonic (practice coming up with one on the fly).

The larger goal, though, is a better understanding of how the type of fiction you read works. Your efforts to place each part into the context of the whole will, over time, as you read more stories, give you a finer appreciation for the strategies writers use to construct their work, one scene or one section at a time. And as you try to anticipate the parts to come from the parts you’ve read you will be training your mind to notice patterns, laying down templates for how to accomplish the types of effects—surprise, emotional resonance, lyricism, profundity—the author has accomplished.

By trying to get ahead of the author, as it were, you won’t be learning to simply reproduce the same effects. By internalizing the strategies, making them automatic, you’ll be freeing up your conscious mind for new flights of creative re-working. You’ll be using the more skilled author’s work to bootstrap your own skill level. But once you’ve accomplished this there’ll be nothing stopping you from taking your own writing to the next level. Anticipation makes reading a challenge in real time—like a video game. And games can be conquered.

Finally, if a story moves you strongly, re-read it immediately. And then put it in a stack for future re-reading.