Reading: Ten steps to hacking classical literature

In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland

The whirligig of time continues to bring its revenge: you've put off your assignment, and now you have to crack the books and get something out of them. Whether you're trying to make sense of a poem or a novel or an essay or a play, follow these time-honored steps to make your search for meaning morewell, meaningful.

In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland
First, read the whole thing, whatever it is. Sorry, no shortcuts here (though there are lighter versions of close reading more applicable to young or struggling readers). What you want is a general overview: the big picture counts. Consider writing an abstract that captures the essence of your reading, or jot down a brief one-paragraph analysis. It's excellent writing practice, and the exercise will give you some idea of how well you read the first time. Bare minimum: keep a reader's journal and record your responses to the steps below.

Let the inquiry begin

In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland
What kind of writing is it? Is it  prose or poetry? Is it description? A narrative? Exposition? A persuasive effort? Or is it any combination of these?

In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland
Address the unity of the piece. What is the author trying to do? Make yourself think through the meaning of the overall work*, even if it seems obvious. Once you've discovered the gist of the author's intentions, begin to look at specific parts. What is the meaning of those parts, and how do they relate to the whole? 

In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland
Next, focus on words that are difficult to understand or used in unusual ways. Does the author use historical, literary or cultural allusions? If so, explain them. Is there anything significant about the sentence structure? If you're reading a poem, examine it's rhythm (meter)—or lack of it.

Once you've looked thoughtfully at the mechanics of the work, consider style.

In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland
Notice the author's diction, the choice and use of words. What is the scope and tenor of his or her vocabulary? Check the etymology of a few of the more interesting words.

In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland
How does the author use her sentences? Are they long or short? Balanced? Periodic or loose? What is the effect of each kind?

In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland
How does the author use figures of speech? What is the effect on the reader of each kind of literary device?

In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland
What are the qualities of the author's style? 
Are the intellectual qualities academic and verbose or simple and clear?
Identify the emotional qualities. Is there strength? Is there beauty? Are there "pathos, humor, wit, melody?**
Are there "elegances of style"?*** Are there harmony, taste, sophistication?
In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland
Finally,  what do you know about the author? Do some research into his personal history, the social and historical context in which he wrote, and the body of his work. What were the great events of his time? What influenced his thinking and writing?

In Nuce: Literature and Language Geekland
And last of all, what do other people know about the author and this particular work? If you're reading a classic text and buying your own copy, invest in a good academic version with readable commentary. Google, Google, Google. Check academic papers and other resources from reputable universities and colleges. 

Yes, I know. Whatever happened to just opening a book and reading it? You can still do that with an easy read:

However, the classics are classics because you learn not only to consume them, but to digest them

Congratulations! You're becoming a thinker.
Rodin's The Thinker

Sources: Alexander Bain, English Composition and Rhetoric. Vol. II and William Swinton, Sixth or Classic English Reader.

*Source: St. Mary's College of Maryland's writing center.
**Source: Alexander Bain, English Composition and Rhetoric: Emotional Qualities of Style.

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