Reading, when done at its very best, is a stormy, engaging, and edifying practice. But often I let reading be a passive and shallow act; I read a book, watch a movie, listen to a song, and am satisfied if it provides some form of emotional evocation, no matter how tepid, that I can use to “escape” (as the nomenclature goes) reality for a brief moment.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with occasionally delving into a work only to experience the gut, emotional response it offers — a practice satirically referred to as “emotional pornography.” Many works are created with emotional pornography as their primary purpose. The romance, action, and horror genres in both film and literature are inundated with such works. However, if I want to be an effective reader, which in turn will help me be an effective writer, I must understand that reading to experience emotional pornography is the lowest form of reading. Being a passive reader not only is a detriment to the reader, but also is mostly useless to the growing writer. If reading is ever to truly benefit me as a writer, the passivity with which I usually approach reading must be overcome.
Passive Reading: How Did We Get Here?
While the human need to classify and differentiate is one of our greatest strengths, it often also causes us to oversimplify. For example, the notion that reading is foundationally a passive activity: when I write, I actively produce my own words, but when I read, I passively take in someone else’s words. This idea is true on the surface. The problem arises with the inherent implication that reading always requires less active thinking than does writing. This, coupled with the “binge your entertainment” culture proliferated by streaming services, has led many to become (often unintentionally) passive readers. Is it any wonder that I overindulge in passive reading when both the entertainment industry and the common concept of reading encourages passivity in me?
Let me break here to say that I am not vilifying passivity. Art and entertainment must be emotionally consumed, and what a work makes us feel is the passive part of the experience. We usually can’t help laughing at a pratfall, or sighing at a particularly romantic kiss, or thinking “so freakin’ cool” as we watch huge explosions on a theater screen while mindlessly shoveling fistfuls of popcorn into our mouths hanging agape. And being able to feel in this way is simple, pure, and beautiful. But why stop here? Why not revel in our emotions and then move on to something deeper? The answer, in part, is because the proliferation of passivity is not the only problem.
For centuries, critical analysis has been identified as an academic endeavor. This is largely the fault of academia itself, and its history of actively attempting to separate itself from the general masses. However, any academic who honestly suggests that critical analysis of artwork be reserved only for academics is, ironically, nothing more than a pompous, gatekeeping, pseudo-intellectual. But this erroneous suggestion is nonetheless common, and has bred a distaste for critical reading in much of the general public. Many people internalize the idea that critically analyzing a work is somehow boring or takes away from their enjoyment of the work. On the contrary, critical analysis, first and foremost, is meant to deepen one’s enjoyment and appreciation of a work. Anyone can do it, college educated or not. And it’s also quite fun.
Relishing in our emotional reaction to a work is certainly beneficial, but focusing too much on what a work makes us feel — as opposed to how and why it makes us feel — encourages lazy reading, and lazy analysis. Learning that critical analysis is part of the entertainment a work provides is beneficial to all readers, and paramount to all writers.
Critical Analysis is Engaging Entertainment.
Anyone who enjoys a good story ultimately enjoys analyzing that story, whether they believe that to be true or not. This is evident by the frequency at which critical discussion regarding a work can be found happening naturally in the general public.
One example of spontaneous analytical combustion of the general public can be found on the popular, bibliophile website Goodreads. The site, among other things, allows members to participate in conversations about books. The conversations are basically indefinite, ending only when the discussion has reached a natural conclusion. One conversation thread titled “Is Nick Carraway Gay?” — a discussion on possible homoerotic imagery surronding the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and how queering Nick might change the way the story is interpreted (a highly analytical endeavor) — has seen near daily posts for the past seven and half years … years. Regardless of what The Great Gatsby makes each of the posters feel, they all seem very interested in whether or not a queer reading of the novel is possibe, and how such a reading affects the narrative.
Such academic analysis by the general public tends to happen without a conscious awareness. The original post on the “Is Nick Carraway Gay” thread does not present the question as an analytical exercise, even though that’s exactly what it is. Doubtless, that had the original poster presented this question academically, the thread would not have seen such popularity or longevity. This practice is not uncommon. When a work explicitly asks to be analyzed, it usually presents the question naturally through the narrative, so that it avoids scaring away the general audience with stuffy academic rhetoric.
The masterpiece of the blockbuster genre, 1993’s Jurassic Park, intentionally and seamlessly presents the audience with the larger questions it wants the audience to consider. The lunch scene, which brilliantly takes place directly after the very uncomfortable feeding of the raptors scene, depicts the main cast discussing not only the moral dilemma of bringing dinosaurs back to life, but also the moral dilemma of scientific exploration in general. This scene is basically the thesis statement of the film. Here is a YouTube clip of that scene; what’s interesting here is the number of comments stating that, while this scene bored them as kids, it is one of their favorites as adults. Watching dinosaurs run amok is certainly fun, but the underlying themes up for critical discussion not only add layers of conflict and complexity to the story, but also give the story a greater sense of reality. Both make for a more engaging — and thus entertaining — experience.
The characters in Jurassic Park, in many ways, mimic the way readers should approach stories. Intellectually, the characters desire to have conversations about the dangerous genetic experiments taking place on Isla Nublar, but emotionally they still wanna see some freakin’ dinosaurs! When the emotional and the intellectual are in balance, then — I would argue only then — can a story be fully enjoyed. Achieving this balance is also how the writer can better their craft through reading.
Active Reading is Writing
When we actively engage a story, dissect it, analyze it, know it, we not only appreciate it on a deeper level, but also peer into how the author of the work was able to accomplish the feat of storytelling. We see that Jurassic Park is able to ask philosophical questions, because it builds characters that would naturally ask them. We understand that questioning Nick Carraway’s sexuality is worth doing, because his sexuality might impact his reliability as a narrator (by way of possible romantic attraction to Jay Gatsby). This peering behind the scenes cannot be done through emotional reading alone. So the more we read actively, the more we will understand how a good (or bad) story is constructed, and thus, be able to use that knowledge in our own writing.
Perhaps the best part of active reading as a means to improve writing, is that it happens mostly through osmosis. A reader could closely examine a character description that seems impactful to them, or pick apart how a particular emotion was conveyed without stating it outright, but these close inspections of methodology will happen naturally through active reading. For example, the detailed description of Cathy Ames in John Steinbeck’s major novel East of Eden. Steinbeck describes Cathy with snake-like features, without ever making a direct comparison to snake; in doing this, Steinbeck establishes a subconscious mistrust of Cathy in the reader. The description is masterful. Studying the description alone is worth doing, but it would likely come up in any discussion about the novel, as this description fits so well into the novel’s running theme of paralleling the biblical book of Genesis. Actively reading East of Eden for its biblical parallels will indirectly expose the reader to a masterful take on character description.
The skill of learning to read beyond our emotions, but without losing our emotions, is a skill that must be learned through practice. So reread a work, discuss a work with others, and don’t be afraid attempting to answer the more “academic” questions being asked about the work. I have heard complaints against all three of these practices, but never from those who do them frequently and have become comfortable with them. Those new to active reading might find it similar to opening a wine bottle with a shoe — possible, but also slow and frustrating. This was my experience, but active reading has since become almost “second nature,” and the benefits are certainly tangible.
Active reading not only deepens the appreciation and enjoyment one can get from a work, but also allows the reader to peer beyond the story and examine the tools and skills used to construct the piece. There is nothing to lose by mastering the practice of active reading, but there is much joy and many skills to be gained. So, as famed writer William Faulkner instructs: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just as a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”