Since there seems to be some interest in the reading method from Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind, I thought I would post her suggested steps/questions for reading a novel. In her book each item is followed by a detailed explanation, but I’ll keep it brief here.
Basic questions: Who are the people? What happens to them? How are they different afterwards?
Look at the title, cover, and table of contents
- Note down title, author, date, and any other significant details on the author or book
- Do read the author’s preface; don’t read the editor’s introduction
Keep a list of characters
Briefly describe the main event of each chapter
- 1–2 complete sentences
Make initial notes on passages that seem interesting
Give the book your own title and subtitle
- Brief title, long subtitle based on central character, main event, and how the main character was affected by the main event
Basic questions: Am I transported? Is the novel’s world believable? Is the story moving?
Ideally these questions are answered (briefly; no term papers) in your reading journal, with supporting evidence.
Is the novel a fable (fantasy world) or a chronicle (real world)?
- If a fable, what is the intent? Is it allegorical or speculative?
- If a chronicle, how is reality conveyed?
What do(es) the central character(s) want? What is standing in their way? What strategy do they pursue in order to overcome this block?
Who is telling the story? What effect does this have?
Where is the story set? Does the setting reflect the human drama?
What style does the writer employ?
- Vocabulary, length and complexity of sentences
- Diction (e.g. concrete vs. abstract nouns, physical vs. mental action verbs)
- Do characters have different or similar voices?
Are there repeated images and metaphors?
Beginnings and endings
- Does the beginning set the tone or is it “debunked”?
- Does the end reach a resolution or “logical exhaustion”?
- What do the beginning and ending say about the novel’s message?
Basic question: Is it true?
Ideally these questions explored in discussion with others.
Do you sympathize with the characters? Which ones and why?
- How are the characters changed? What is the author saying about their characteristics?
Does the writer’s technique give you a clue as to his or her argument?
Is the novel self-reflective?
- I.e. does it say something about writing itself?
Did the writer’s time affect him or her?
Is there an argument in this book?
Do you agree?
- The big question!
Even for my pleasure reading I make up index cards with lists of characters (with relationships), places, and new-to-me vocabulary (and also things to blog!). This habit was a lifesaver when I read Anna Karenina, with what seemed like scores of characters and complicated (to a non-Russian) place names.