How to Get More Out of What You Read
Jun 01, 2019
You’d think a conversation about grammar would be very boring at a dinner party.
Back in my college professor days, I always made sure to stay far away from the topic at gatherings. Not only because I could geek out for hours on the subject but because parties and sentence diagrams are almost never used in the same phrase.
But something strange would happen when attendees asked me about my profession. They would light up about their favorite books or tell me the story of writing a 'novel' as a child or pontificate about texting and the ruin of the English language.
And then, like clockwork, they would narrow in on their true heart's desire: a lesson on commas or maybe even the semi-colon. I would glance back and forth over my shoulder—I wanted to be invited back after all—before diving into the euphoria that emanates from one of my all-time favorite topics.
I'd explain the imperative of really identifying an independent clause (not before making sure we all knew what one was of course) before selecting a punctuation mark. Or the value in adding a category in your brain called ‘joiners’ that is neither word nor punctuation but more of a function that can connect two thoughts. With a flourish, I would say things like "Commas are very weak grammar all by themselves!” or I'd lower my voice conspiratorially and whisper, "Now the semi-colon…that is very sexy grammar.”
Now you might be wondering why I titled this article “how to get more out of what you read” but then told you a story about punctuation and dinner parties. I suppose I should be clear and say that understanding the grammar in a sentence isn’t the only way you can get more out of what you read.
But it is a handy metaphor for what I want to talk about. Because understanding the function of punctuation helps you make sense of the sentence, and it helps ensure that you’re always using your commas and semi-colons appropriately (never ever interchangeably!), which even email writers want to nail.
The problem is that very few people (except for the word nerds like me) learn punctuation in school and believe it holds the keys to the intellectual kingdom. And the same goes for reading books in school. Few of us approached literature— with an explanation of plot, character, theme, and symbol—as information that could some day make our lives better.
Children grow up to be adults who write resumes for jobs or emails to their bosses or content for their industry. Students graduate into the real world and feel a nudge to return to discarded classics or join a book club or pick up the novel everyone is reading.
But for works of literary fiction (sorry Da Vinci Code) approaching a novel or memoir with rekindled enthusiasm could actually end in a letdown. Why? Because just like students in a classroom discover, these sorts of books require more engagement and often ask us to slow down as we read. In a busy world, it may feel like we’re moving in slow motion. You may even end up regretting your decision to upgrade your intellect and toss your reader’s ambition aside.
But what if I told you that stories have grammar?
What if I told you that those pesky terms like character, plot, and theme are tools to help you deepen your understanding of what you read, not requirements to memorize for a quiz that no one is taking later.
In fact, just by having an understanding of the big three—character, plot, and theme—you can get more out of what you read and join the conversation the author wants to have with you, her reader.
Here’s a quick and practical breakdown of literary terms to help you get more out of your next read.
The main character grows morally and psychologically over the course of the story. That means if the main character begins happy, confident, and beloved, these qualities will be tested by the plot. You'll notice that this rule holds true whether it's literary fiction or literary memoir.
The plot, or sequence of events in a story, press on the main character to develop his or her character morally and psychologically. By noticing how the main character begins the story (shy/proud/lonely) you can trace how the events affect him or her. Why should we care?
Because character development is a great study of human nature, and in the very best books the main character tends to discover that the world, themselves, and the people around them are not as straightforward as they once believed.
The ability to articulate how the main character grows and what he or she discovers about the world due to the sequence of events isn’t just book knowledge—it’s wisdom. And the best part? You didn’t have to live their life in order to get it.
Roland Barthes said, “Literature is the question minus the answer.” When it comes to considering theme, think about the questions that naturally arise in the story as you read.
Themes tend to focus on the tough topics that naturally occur in normal life: faith, justice, humanity, family, identity, war, the meaning of life, or the meaning of loss. In fact, the main character is often grappling with some philosophical conflict surrounding one of these subjects.
By noticing how the main character develops his or her worldview as the story unfolds—as the questions haunt and persist—you can begin to account for the variety of perspectives that exist in the world. And it’s one of the best ways we can understand a dramatically different point of view because we get to see firsthand how the events of the main character’s life formed how he or she sees things.
Besides grammar questions, over the years I have heard my fair share of regrets around unfinished books or declarations about tackling a beloved classic. It’s my hope these reminders about a story’s grammar will inspire you and allow you to marvel over how much more is already in a story, as you begin to notice the strands the author has woven together for all of us to ponder and enjoy.