The Art of Reading
Timothy Spurgin, Ph.D.
(The Great Courses)
Scope: How to read well
Overview: I’m breaking with form a bit here to review a set of CDs/DVDs put out by The Great Courses Company. This company offers audio and video lectures on a myriad of topics from history to cooking. Each course is taught by a scholar or professional within that field and comes with a guidebook and optional course transcript. Though targeted at the lay audience, the lecture topics are satisfyingly complex and presented with sufficient depth. Supplemental readings are suggested, but by no means necessary to understand the material.
As the name implies, The Art of Reading discusses a more mindful approach to reading. Dr. Timothy Spurgin, a professor of English Literature from Lawrence University, teaches the course with infectious zeal. Artful reading, he argues, not only deepens your understanding and appreciation of great literature, but also heightens your enjoyment.
As writers, we must too be great readers. We must understand what voice, style, irony, plot, character, scene, and setting can do for our work. Part of that understanding comes in seeing how others use these devices to good (or poor) effect. Dr. Spurgin’s lectures in The Art of Reading shows you how.
- “It is never too late to begin reading well.”
You don’t have to be an English professor to learn the craft of artful reading. With a bit of mindfulness, anyone can do it.
- “Artful reading is what you do with a work of fiction—when you stop to take note of an elegant phrase or striking image.”
Professor Spurgin often uses the term “close reading” to further illuminate this point. Pay attention to the words on the page; pay attention to the narrative distance and POV choice. How is the book arranged—long chapters or short ones? All of these details contribute to the overall effect.
- “The real question is not whether the characters are likeable; it is whether they embody a sensitive, intelligent understanding of human motivation, memory, and desire.”
Consider why you relate to certain characters when you’re reading. What makes you root for them? What has the author done to engender empathy or fascination with them? Round characters will surprise you without fully defying the basic tenants of their personality.
- “Chapters are not simply pieces of a larger puzzle but impressive and moving works of art.”
In great works of literature, chapters are not formed at random. Their length and sequence service not only plot but also the rhythm and larger aesthetic value of the novel.
- “What are the tell-tale signs of bad dialogue? All of the characters sounding alike or wordiness.”
Play a game when you read: can you tell who says something without looking at the speech tag? Each character should have his or her own cadence, vocabulary, and verbal tics. Play this game with your own writing as well. Additionally, consider whether the dialogue has a feeling of spontaneity and immediacy. Is there subtext? Is the dialogue interactive or just a series of speeches?
- “Continue to enjoy both artful and everyday reading.”
Artful reading should not be a chore. Not every book requires a close reading. You don’t have to consider every aspect of form and structure every time you read.
With 24 lectures in all, this course covers far more tips and techniques than I can relay here. Even if you don’t have time to listen or watch every one, consider checking out a few. Artful reading is an important step in artful writing.