Ideally, I would like to read a book lying down on the bed, my head propped up by a couple of pillows, my elbows gently resting on the bed and supporting the book, the base of which gently rises and falls with every breath that I take. As I move from the reality into the world of the book, my imagination comes alive and then gives way to my heavy eyelids drawing the curtain on my imagination to slip into a world that exists within me and I do not know. I wake up after an hour or two to find the book open on my chest, at an event, at an episode that I do not remember reading. I place the bookmark at the point I last remember reading and then put the book away for my next reading session.
This is pleasure reading to me and I am sure for each one of us exists a different definition of what it means to read for pleasure. However, reading for pleasure is so different from reading critically. The first time I read Anna Karenina, I was absorbed into the story and I allowed myself to drift with every wave of emotion that Tolstoy has created in this masterpiece. The second time I read Anna Karenina critically and I felt something akin to an explosion hitting me as I realised the depth and scale of themes and questions Tolstoy has explored in his novel.
Reading critically means as I read something that is moving me, something that disgusts me, something that I feel is beautiful or something that transports me into a different world, I ask myself what is it about the text that has managed to evoke these responses within me? What is the author trying to say here? How has the author managed to say this? Has he made use of certain words that are creating an impact? What form has the author incorporated here?
Similarly, when we write critically about a text, its not about the plot or story. If I write an article about Anna Karenina that simply tells you the story it wouldn’t be very interesting. It might be useful if someone wishes to read a summary of the novel but then again writing a summary involves skill. A summary too wouldn’t be a summary if I write the whole story in the summary. Whether we are writing a book review, a book summary or attempting to discuss a particular aspect of a novel, we need to write in way that that would tell readers why they should read or not read a book, what are the key events in a book that make it interesting and lastly what is it about the theme and the manner in which the author has written it that makes the book interesting.
Let’s try an exercise! The following passage is an extract from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:
“He saw her from behind the mirror, between two candles. Her dark eyes seemed darker. Her bands of hair, gently swelling out over her ears, shone with a blue luster; a rose in her chignon trembled on its pliant stem, with artificial drops of water at the tips of its leaves. Her dress was pale saffron, set off by three sprays of pompon roses mingled with greenery.
Charles came to kiss her on the shoulder”.(Flaubert 42-43)
If we sit down to analyse simply this passage what information can we gain from it? The use of the pronoun “He” coupled with the verb “saw” indicates that what we are about to read is the point of view of this man. As readers we are going to see through his eyes. What is he looking at? “Her” indicates that he is looking at a woman. Where is this woman? She is “behind the mirror, between two candles”. What could this mean? That the woman is seated behind a mirror could mean that she is getting ready. Additionally, she is seated “between two candles” which means that the room does not have sufficient light for her to get ready. This in turn indicates that it could be evening or night. By reading the passage we get a feeling that the woman is beautiful. Why so? The author identifies certain characteristics of the woman such as her “dark eyes”, “swelling…sh[ining]” hair, he details aspects of her attire, “the rose”, her dress, its saffron colour. What we are witnessing is a gaze of a man who looks in detail at the woman seated in front of him and the action that he takes as a result is he walks over and gives her a kiss. This further indicates that the gaze was a gaze of admiration and of love. Therefore, we can conclude that everything that the man sees in this woman was in appreciation of her beauty.
This simple exercise of trying to read a passage from a book, that I am assuming some of us have not read, shows that even an out of context passage from a book has so much to say if we choose to give it attention. This is the potential of critical reading and critical writing.
Go on, have some fun! Pick up a book you haven’t read, flip through its pages and identify a random paragraph and try to critically analyse it. See what it has to reveal to you.
In obeisance to the divine in you,
-Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2015.