The first point I want to make is: reading is supposed to be enjoyable and allow lots of us to escape. If you don’t want to pry in between the lines of your books and leave reading to be effortless enjoyment, then this might not be the post for you.
If you want to dive deeper, learn about how to analyze a book beyond its pages, and talk about critiques and comparisons of books in essays, this very well might be for you. I want to write these posts to help college and university students who were as unprepared as I was going into my first year. That doesn’t mean that this post is only for them. It’s for every single one of you. So, ask me questions along the way and I will do my very best to answer them. If I don’t have the answer which is likely as I am not the most experienced writer of anything out there by any means, I’ll look into the world of the internet and try my best to find you an answer or point you in the right direction. (For the record, teachers are not all-knowing either. I know that they like to put on this front, but they need to move towards seeing themselves as scholars.)
So, what does it mean to be critical? This is not a negative word! I’ve always thought of it as applying strict logic to a thing to find out more about it. To me, this definition is actually quite positive and born out of curiosity and the noble quest for knowledge. In literary studies, we are critical so we can learn about our cultures, our history, our future, and each other. Literature is the most beautiful record we have of our greatest loves and biggest downfalls. It also helps us predict our future and shows us the hope that humanity has always inherently had. Without literature, we would have a very poor understanding of how humanity functions beyond the surface level.
To be critical of literature, we select a specific text and break it into moments. Depending on the question we are seeking to answer, we take some of those moments and look at them from more angles, being careful not to remove the context. Based on what we infer from the passages, we can draw conclusions about the world, characters, or plot of the text. Sometimes these conclusions will even draw parallels with the actual world.
This means that the important points in the text will change depending on the question asked about the text. This question, or essay topic, will tell you what to pick out of the text and therefore, what is important to you in the reading. The best way to keep track of this, if you know the question before reading, is to take notes of moments you think would be relevant.
Significant moments will vary depending on the text, but they can include deaths, births, emotionally charged moments, and others. Your essay topic will point you in the right direction, so that will be easier to follow. But what if you don’t have an essay topic? Allow the text to lead the way. To be on the safe side, you can record every moment that has something that could be significant to the plot or the characters. You can also keep track of quotes and moments that resonate with you. Perhaps these will occur in moments of love or heartbreak, climactic tension, or during death scenes, but they can be from literally any point in the text. Personally, I’ve never done this. I prefer to read without breaking my concentration for every quote and note that I probably should be taking. When I’ve tried in the past, I’ve struggled to get anywhere in the book and I dread sitting back down with it, no matter how much I love the book itself. If you find this too, don’t worry! Don’t force yourself to make reading uncomfortable or boring.
We can take notes in a variety of ways. Most of these focus on taking notes during the reading process, but at the end of this, I’ll touch on the method that I use. First, taking notes by hand or on a phone or computer. This is very easy to do for some people and involves making a bullet point list of everything that you find interesting or important while reading. Next is sticky notes. I’ve always envied the people that do this and if you need examples, there are lots on Booktok, the Bookish community on TikTok. Essentially, they use coloured stick notes to mark quotes and passages for later or to flip to when they reread the book.
Third, the one that makes me cringe. Using a pen or pencil to write directly in the book. To me, annotating a book this way ruins the book, but that only my opinion! I understand that this makes it easier to get immediate thoughts onto a page and allows for the notes to be right beside the passages themselves. My only plea is that you only do this to your own books if this works for you. Finally, the method I use. I will read a book at my normal pace, without taking notes during the read. When I’m finished, I spend a few hours thinking about the novel before writing notes about it. I touch on character, plot, theme, and other story elements so I can go back and expand that bullet point list into a full review or essay. My advice when using this method is to not wait too long before writing or typing out your notes. You want the novel to remain fresh in your mind.
This is not an exhaustive list, and I encourage you to research more methods of note-taking. With technology these days, there are constantly fresh ways of recording our thoughts. Find the one that works for you.
When you have your notes taken, you can start looking at them in relation to your essay topic. I’m finding this difficult to explain without providing an example, so I’m going to make another post to provide an example of that in the new year.
I hope that this post can help someone out there to pull information from the texts they are studying. As always, if you have questions, leave a comment below or send me a message on Instagram, @litandleta. I’m always happy to expand further and help you achieve success in the honourable study of literature.
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