Beginning to Read Critically

When does a reader know that the book they have picked up is a book they would want to read? At which point of our reading do we set expectations from a story that we are reading? When is it that our imagination kicks in and starts creating a pathway for the story that we have begun to read? The answer to these questions, for me, is ‘The Beginning’. 

But where does a book begin? Does it begin when a cover in a bookshop draws me in? Or does it begin when I pick up a book and instantly flip through its pages and read its reviews? Or does it begin when I read a book review in a paper or when I am bombarded by weird suggestions by Amazon that I intriguingly find interesting? Whether it’s a bookshop or a website or an insisting friend, each of these sources set an expectation within us. We embark on the reading process with set expectations on how the story would evolve and the moment we actually begin the act of reading a book the world of our imagination and expectations enters into the world of the book. 

It isn’t always a smooth journey from there on. The beginning of a book or let me refer to it as a text brings its own set of expectations. The beginning at times tries to give a brief glimpse into what is to come, sometimes it aims to simply suck in and trap the reader into its world and sometimes it reveals nothing and expects us to hold on, be patient and experience the journey of reading. 

For instance, let us consider the beginning of Jane Eyre.

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question” (Bronte).

These opening lines begin the novel in the middle. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day”. This opening sentence indicates that the day on which the novel opens was in someway different from the other days. Yet the day was a part of a series of other days, which were alike and monotonous. Mrs. Reed’s unchanging habit further emphasizes this monotony. The harshness and darkness of the weather alludes towards a story that might be harsh and unforgiving. 

Similarly, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner begins with:

“It is an ancient Mariner, 

And he stoppeth one of three. 

‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, 

Now wherefore stopp’st thou me? 

The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide, 

And I am next of kin; 

The guests are met, the feast is set: 

May’st hear the merry din.’ 

He holds him with his skinny hand, 

‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.” (Coleridge)

The use of the adjective “ancient” to describe the Mariner immediately communicates to the reader that here is a man with years behind him. He stops three mariners, who are looking forward to a wedding feast. The wedding, evokes images of youth and gaiety that is in stark contrast with the ancient “grey beard” of the mariner. He is a desperate man because he chooses to stop three strangers in his eagerness to get something off his chest. As we read on, we discover the reason behind the mariner’s troubled heart but it is important to recognize that the very beginning gave inkling in to what was to come. 

Then, does it mean that authors always have a purpose behind beginning their work in a particular manner? Does an author have expectations from us readers? Does an author want us to decipher the meaning behind the chosen beginning? If so, what happens to the expectations with which we started reading the book? How do we readers know if we have got the answer right, if we have been able to break through the code so particularly chosen by the author to pique our interest? Alas, the answer is we do not have an answer. 

As readers, it is not possible for us to begin reading a text with the intention to investigate the author’s intention behind writing the text and its true meaning- an idea described by the term ‘intentional fallacy’ (Bennett). How do we know what Bronte and Coleridge had been thinking when they began writing Jane Eyre and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? Even if we are able to find references to their intention behind writing these texts we might even go further back and try to fathom the events that might have inspired their intention, fathom historical occurrences and social structures that led to these events and so on.

Therefore, breathe and just begin. If you know what influenced the author then begin reading with that knowledge. If I do not know anything about the author, I begin reading and interpreting purely based on the words on the page. If someone is aware of the historical and cultural landscape in which a novel is set, they may begin reading with their knowledge. The important thing is that each of us has and will always have a unique reading experience, which will always add to the way a book has been read an interpreted.

Does this mean that I would never try to find out about the author who has written the book I am reading or about the events that inspired and motivated the author to write a book? Yet again the answer is, it is up to me. As a reader, the first reading of a book might be the last reading of that book for me. However, as a student of literature, it is imperative that I make an effort to re-experience the book. Our first reading of a text is not necessarily the purest experience of reading a text (Bennet). 

Our thoughts, beliefs and associations with critical traditions, influence the way we approach the reading of a text. For instance, reading a text on holocaust would conjure up images of lived experience for a holocaust survivor whereas other readers would have to be guided by the text in their imagination. Similarly the experience of reading an anti-feminist text would be very different for a feminist and an anti-feminist. Hence, it is necessary to acknowledge that our beliefs or critical associations precede us when we read a text. This is the reason why a second reading of a text does not sully our first reading but rather allows us to build associations, link ideas and discover flavours that we could not savour in our rush and delight to relish the literary text the first time.  

So, what have I been trying to achieve by making you read this article? I hope I have been able to urge you to begin your reading experience. Read with expectations or without it, read with contextual knowledge or without it, read once or read again and again to make the book a part of you. Dear friend, all I urge you to do is read forever again and again.

In obeisance to the divine in you,

The Ever Learning Reader (TM)


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