Reading Novels Like a College Student

  • Your English teacher gestures at a weathered stack of novels on a table by the door and announces, as the bell rings, that each student should pick up a copy and begin reading.  You grab your novel and head out the door...and then forget all about it for a week.  Sound familiar?

    Some students approach novel assignments with a "Band-Aid" approach--you know, rip it off quickly and it will hurt less.  They read the novels as quickly as possible.  The problem with this approach is that you only scratch the surface, meaning you're unprepared for in-depth discussion or any of the assignments your teacher will give you.

    Other students go for "less is more" and opt to watch the movie, buy the Cliffs notes, or, worse yet, head to the Internet for a plot summary.  The reality is that movie plots rarely closely follow the books they are based upon, often cutting large amounts and changing portions of the story to cover the plot holes created by doing so.  Cliffs notes aren't intended to replace the novel either.  Most chapter summaries in Cliffs notes are a paragraph long when the original chapter may have been twenty pages or more.  That's a lot of detail to miss out on!  Internet sites are even worse.  Anybody can make a Web site.  Sometimes even seemingly reputable companies have incorrect information.  I once found a site that mixed up two of the major characters in King Lear.  I e-mailed the company and got a "we don't care" in reply...so user beware!

    If you're enrolled in a pre-AP or AP level English course, "reading" novels with a Band-Aid or "less is more" approach is not acceptable.  You need to read novels like a college student.

    Step 1:  Read Slowly; Absorb What You Read

    Reading a book for class is different than reading a book for pleasure.  The goal is not to get to the end as quickly as possible; it's to gain understanding of the book and the author's intentions.  Stop speed-reading and skimming.  Slow down and really read the book, one chapter at a time.  If you reach the end of a chapter and there's something you don't understand, go back and re-read a portion of the chapter.  Keep a notebook handy.  Write down character information (especially minor characters) if you're having difficulty keeping them straight.

    Step 2:  Analyze What You Read

    Books (the good ones, anyway) don't just magically appear on the shelf, ready for you to devour.  Authors spend months--years, even--selecting just the right words and phrases to tell their tales.  Each story has multiple levels, and you need to dig deep to uncover each layer and understand how it affects the plot.  What influenced the author when writing this novel?  What message is the author trying to convey?

    Depending upon your teacher (and the assignment), your analysis is going to involve a search for specific items.  Your teacher might ask you to identify themes or motifs.  You may be asked to discuss symbolism in the text or explain how a novel is an allegory.  Before you turn to the Internet and google the answers, sit down and try to come up with them yourself.  It does you no good to tell your teacher what the symbols are if you can't provide any examples from the novel or explain the significance.  All of those guides are only meant to help you finalize conclusions--not formulate them!

    Step 3:  Re-read

    Every time you watch a movie, you notice something you didn't see before.  Why would reading a novel be any different?  If you're going to be discussing a novel in class, seriously consider reading it twice.  The second time around, you already know the storyline, so you can concentrate on picking up on the symbolism or foreshadowing you might have missed before.