How to Read a Novel á laTWEM

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.

“Grammar” Reading
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

“Logic” Reading
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?

“Rhetoric” Reading
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.



8 comments on “How to Read a Novel á laTWEM

  1. Talmida says:

    I've read since I can remember — but fast, with very little retention. Sort of fast food reading. It all fell apart when I quit smoking 3 years ago, so I still have trouble sitting down and sticking with a book for more than an hour or so. I think this technique might be of great help to me.
    I've been trying to read more non-fiction (which seems easier to pick up & put down than fiction) but I can never remember all the details after I put it down!
    I am planning to use this method (notebook) with the next book I start, and I LOVE your index card idea! That one I will do right away.
    Thanks, Sylvia, this has been very helpful.

  2. Fred says:

    Heck, I can use this in class – thanks!

  3. Sylvia says:

    Blogoholic symptom #846: Using blog posts as teaching aids.

  4. Stefanie says:

    Good questions and ways of looking at a text, but maybe because I majored in English Lit in college it seems too much like researching for a term paper. I still take notes on my reading from time to time, but for the most part I have gone to the other extreme and mark passages with my Levenger page points. Then after I am done reading I go back and look at those passages, think about them a bit and then blog about the book. I used to have notebooks filled with notes on my reading and found that not once did I ever go back and look at them again, not to mention the fact that they were an unorganized mess, daunting in itself 🙂

  5. Sylvia says:

    Heh. Well, TWEM really isn't for the English major who can probably do all this stuff in her head on the fly. But for those of us who were silly enough to get a B.Sc. we gotta do it the hard way. Call it remedial English. 😉

  6. Stefanie says:

    Good point. I obviously forget that not everyone who likes to read majored in literature at Unversity. 🙂

  7. KaneCitizen says:

    Hi there – Cool blog.
    I have some comments on TWEM posted here.

  8. Sylvia says:

    Hi Kane, thanks for the plug!

Comments are closed.