Sunday 23 March 2014

English Literature Study Skills: Approaching new novels

Approaching a new text for study can be intimidating, especially if this is the first time you’ve studied literature seriously, know that knowledge and understanding of this novel is crucial for success in an important exam, or are taking your studies to a new level, e.g. transitioning from GCSE to A Level or starting degree level study.

Different people find different techniques suit them when it comes to academic work, but below are a few suggestions on how to improve your approach to literary study which you might find helpful.

1. Reading for flow: At secondary school we spent months ploughing through set texts at a snail’s pace, doing exercises on each chapter and losing all sight of novels as a mode of entertainment which is meant to be enjoyable.

My top tip is to read a new novel cover to cover before attempting any ‘analysis’. That way you’ll be reading a text in the way it was designed to read, duplicating the reading experience of the many others who have read the novel previously and be in a better position to assess the effects the writing has on you. You’ll find out which portions of a novel are faster paced and make you want to keep reading and be able to appreciate chapter and section breaks – whether they give you time to pause or make you want to read on.

If you are reading a novel in a classroom setting, taking the time to read ahead outside class is definitely not time wasted. You’ll gain more from any discussion as a group if you already have a handle on plot and some idea where the novel is going thematically.

2. Notes  - theirs and yours: One thing which can be detrimental to appreciating the flow of a text is notes – note reading and note taking.

Many editions of Victorian novels, for instance Oxford World Classics and Penguin Classics, – are equipped with really helpful and informative endnotes, but taking up the time to flick back and read each one can lead to your reading experience being disjointed, as the notes interrupt you, sometimes mid-sentence. My rule of thumb is to avoid the temptation to read every note just to feel studious, especially if you already understand a reference in the text. Turn to the notes when your understanding is impaired. For example, there may be quotes in another language or a reference to a famous person, place or historical person unknown to you.

The type of notes I always avoid at first reading are the ones which deal with textual changes and omissions. These are often lengthy, reading them can confuse as you are trying to get to know this version of the text first and editors very often presume knowledge of the plot meaning these notes are accompanied by explanations which include spoilers. Textual variation is a rich field for study later but I’d say leave them for now and come back to them once you’re better acquainted with the text.

Taking your own notes can also be unhelpful in some cases. Use them only to aid your own reading experience – e.g. to keep track of characters and their relationships to each other if they are proving confusing (think Wuthering Heights) – or as a helpful list of references to chase up later. So, if you read a line or passage which makes you think of another novel, seems particularly interesting to you or you know you’ll want to come back to later, take a note of the page number with a brief one or two word reminder to yourself about why you want to bookmark it. This is particularly useful if you are at a more advanced stage of study, where you know you are looking at this text to explore a certain topic or theme.

Don’t feel that if you’re not taking notes, you’re not studying. You are. Writing ‘pathetic fallacy’ or ‘jealousy’ etc. in the margins won’t help you at all and there’s no point writing notes you’ll never read again.

3. Other resources: If you are still reading the text there’s no point turning to literary criticism yet, or even to study guides – these will come in later. But there are other resources which might help. If your understanding is impaired, don’t just soldier on. Turn to search engines (or good old dictionaries) to look up unfamiliar words. And if an historical event or person is referenced in the text without a note, take the time to at least read the first line of Wikipedia.

4. Introductions: Never read the introduction first. The blurb will give you enough of an idea about what sort of novel it is that you’re starting, while an introduction will a) spoil the plot for you, b) confuse by referencing things you don’t know about yet and c) prejudice the way you read the text. If a friend talked at length about a film you hadn’t seen, the conversation wouldn’t be much fun and might even put you off going to the cinema to see it. By the time you read the introduction you should be in a position where your responses can be more conversational  and critical – ‘I thought that too!’, ‘I hadn’t thought about it that way’, ‘I’m not sure I agree with the editor on this’. Introductions can be very helpful, especially for directing you towards criticism, but avoid the temptation to start at page ‘i’ and turn straight to page ‘1’.

In a follow up post, I’m going to be looking at what to do once you have finished reading your text (including more detail on how introductions can be helpful). In the meantime, if you have any questions or tips on approaching novels for study, then let me know – in the comments below, on Twitter (@SVictorianist), or on my Facebook page.

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