Reading Layers

I find there are three layers that I analyze whenever I read a piece of fiction. And while it’s difficult to take in all three layers at once, with practice and awareness, it becomes feasible.

Reread

A writing teacher once told me to reread any book that I thought was really good immediately again, after finishing it. When I’d asked why I should bother since there were so many great books to go through, the teacher said that the first time you read a book, you’re too engrossed on the journey of the character(s) and eager for the outcome, to really bother about appreciating things like diction, structure, style, subtext and so on.

Although this made a lot of sense, it took me a while to actually do this. I later attributed it to the fact that the right book which I could immediately reread had not yet landed on my hands. Until I read The Old Man and the Sea. If I like something or if a piece of art speakes to me, then I’m more susceptible to indulge in it. This feeling sets a necessary mood which makes me want to take the time and effort to learn form the masters (in this case, my favorite literary works).

Layers

When reading a book the second time, the appreciation I derive from the first reading remains. But more importantly, the nuances that I as a writer can learn from are now better visible to my critical eye.

I noticed there were three layers in a piece of fiction:

-The first layer was at the word and sentence level such as diction, onomatopoeia , alliteration, metaphor, grammatical structure, vocabulary and so on.

-The second layer was at the paragraph and chapter level such as structure, pace, plot, character development, suspense and so on.

-The third layer was at the book level itself where the genre and overall story helped to make sense of the entire piece of fiction.

The second and third layers were the easiest to identify with as a reader, since these were primarily what I focused on when I read a book for the first time. But the first layer was harder to pay attention to while processing the information from the other layers. And for this reason, the advice to reread was both important and rewarding.

Choices

It’s at this first layer that writers make all kinds of choices, whether conscious or subconscious, when working through their later drafts. These are the choices that spawn a writer’s voice such as active, tense and exciting versus passive, slow and boring. These are the choices that create a writer’s unique style, think of Hemingway, Twain, Faulkner or Dostoevsky. These are the choices that sustain an epic like War & Peace or empower a novella like Of Mice and Men or reinforce a narrative like Odyssey.

When I look at a piece of fiction, I see a collection of choices made by the writer and I know that the more I like it then the more I agree with the writer’s choices, and vice versa. To strive to achieve what the great masters have achieved, I believe it’s crucial to study this first layer by analyzing their choices and making sense of it all. It’s important to practice and emulate the styles I like, for only in doing this can I experience the difficulties and obstacles, and learn my limitations.

Learning

After much practice, I’m able to read a book once to both enjoy it for the sake of reading and to learn from it. There are, and always will be, exceptions to this, of course. I continue to read, learn, write and emulate. And when I’m tired, the writer and editor in me overcomes the pure reader… sadly, I then focus on the first layer rather than the second and third. The teacher was right, I can never read as a regular reader anymore.

Samir

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12 thoughts on “Reading Layers

  1. As far as rereading is concerned I offer this: whenever I pick up a book where I last left off, be it the night before or one week previous, I always skip back to the last chapter and start from there to refresh myself; in this way I am constantly rereading the work instead of starting over from page one when you have finished the book and desire to read it again for a more critical eye.

    1. Makes sense, although I do think there are certain aspects of prose that need to be read over in their entirety for a fuller appreciation – but that tends to be more with the classics or modern classics that speak to me.
      I also usually reread but only the previous paragraph or two, to set myself back on track with the story ( especially when I’m reading more than one book).
      Thanks for commenting!

  2. This is interesting Samir. I have often watched films more than once because I often get a different perspective on the second viewing. Last year I re read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ which is a book I read for o’level English. I found that I had forgotten or maybe not even noticed when I first read it, just how beautifully it is written. I agree that there is a lot one doesn’t notice in a first reading. My mother says that she is now so forgetful that she only needs five films and three books to last her the rest of her life.

    1. It’s nice isn’t it, to reread a book after so long and appreciate it all over on a different level? Well, I’m still far away from the point where three books will do… 😉

  3. It’s a difficult balance, reading for pleasure and reading as part of a learning process. If an author can get me past the first few pages without distracting me by editing problems or just plain bad writing, I can sink into the book. I probably learn as much about writing from some mediocre books as I do from the good ones, but it’s only the excellent ones that I’m going to go back and reread–someday.

  4. Great advice! I find I apply my editing skills as I read. So when I like the beginnings I stop and ask myself was that a strong opening? Did the writer use rhetorical devices? Was it the voice? It’s kinda cool to analyze as I read, even when I’m reading for pleasure because it adds tools to my writing toolbox. 🙂

  5. Samir, I know exactly what you mean about not being a regular reader anymore. It is sad. Maybe like a child who loves magic shows and grows up to become a magician – the illusion is lost. But how cool is it to be the one to pass it on, to bestow the magic on another child? Maybe this is how it is with readers who become writers.

    Your idea of layers is interesting. I confess I am partial to layer one — I love noticing all those things in something I’m reading. There is one particular exercise I remember from school — we chose a section, a few paragraphs, from a work we liked and then wrote something completely different, but in exactly the same style, right down the last comma, adjective, alliteration, etc. It was challenging, but kind of fun. 🙂

    1. That’s a beautiful analogy, I never thought of it that way.

      As for the exercise, it does sound like fun. I just might try it 😉

  6. I appreciate your explanation of how to read a book. Unfortunately, I tend to devour books and stuff my self too full to go back and read it again too soon. I should slow down and savor, and your commentary reminds me to do so. Thanks for the excellent advice.
    Happy Pages,
    CricketMuse

    1. It’s definitely a challenge to slow down and savor when you’re really into a book, I know. But patience does have its rewards 😉

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