How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Category: Literature 101 (Page 1 of 3)

Posts focusing on how to unfold the meaning of literature.

All About Narrators: Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

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Tere Marichal, storyteller from Puerto Rico, telling the Afro-Caribbean folktale of Anansi at Biblioteca Juvenil de Mayag during a Multicultural Childrens Book Day.

How to Read Fiction Step  5: Narrators and Point of View 

Wading into a new fiction, it’s natural to size up the characters and get a bead on the story line. Who’s the central character? What is her problem or goal? Then off we go, following the storyline up and down until we find out how it all comes out in the end.

But before launching out into the plotline, there’s one big question we need to ask first, and keep asking all the way through: who is telling this story, anyway?

Is it someone who is in the story with a limited view of events, or someone outside looking omnisciently down? Is it someone we can trust or someone we must question?

A work of fiction is not just a description of a series of incidents; it is a description of a series of incidents as told by a particular teller. Sometimes a fiction is more about the teller than it is about the events in the storyline itself. Whatever the narrator choice or mode of telling, this important aspect of great fiction is something we don’t want to miss.

In this post I’m going to talk about the many different types of narrators an author could choose when constructing a fiction, and how that artistic choice influences the story that we experience as readers.

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Give Reading Poetry Another Try with Guided Reading Questions

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Who says you can’t read poetry?  And why bother? Here’s why and how:

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: “Poetry just isn’t my thing!”

My response to that: Don’t be so sure! Could it be that you just haven’t met the right poem?

I can well believe that some particular poem, or poet, is not your thing. Many famous poems are quite old, therefore using language that seems unfamiliar to modern readers. Even some poetry written after 1900 may be hard to understand, given that many 20th century writers followed a modernist aesthetic calling for experimental, strange, or highly figurative language. That kind of poetry might seem puzzling at first reading. If you’re not accustomed to poetic language of these kinds, reading poetry might not seem worth the effort.

However, classic and much beloved poems are hardly all alike. Many lovely poems are not that hard to understand; reading them can add meaning and beauty to your mental life.

Besides, making poetry is natural to the human mind: poetry is playing with language, finding meaningful and powerful ways of expressing ideas, and reveling in beautiful and interesting sounds of words. From the very beginning of language, people have naturally sought memorable words to capture, enshrine, and encourage contemplation of human experience.

Besides offering meaning, so many poems are just pretty—their pictures, their sounds, the feel of the words upon the tongue. Experiencing poetry taps into something primal and pleasurable in the human mind.

Whether you are poetry skeptic or poetry-loving enthusiast, I invite you to join me now for a little poetry read-along. Just below, I quote three different poems. Below each one is a series of guided reading questions I hope will help you understand and enjoy the poems more.

Want to play?

To get the most out of the process, read each poem a couple of times through, then get a piece of notepaper to jot down your own responses to the questions. I hope the little time it takes to think through the questions will bring each poem to life for you.

If  You Like:

When you’ve interpreted each poem for yourself, you can click the link or scroll down to the bottom of the article to see some of my responses to each question. I expect we won’t have all the same answers to every question, and that’s OK! Every reader has a personal response to every poem.

It doesn’t follow, though, that a poetic text can mean just anything at all. Words, even poetic ones, do communicate specific ideas. As you develop your ideas of what each poem is saying, test those ideas to see if they truly fit with the words, phrases, and references in the poem itself, as the writer seems to have used them.
One object of reading poetry, just like reading any literature, is to lend an open mind and ear to exactly what that writer is communicating to us, whether the idea is familiar to us or completely strange or new.

Ready to go on this guided poetry-reading adventure? If doing a slow and deep analysis is the sort of thing that just makes you nuts, no problem! Just choose some great poems and read away. You can skip to this post for suggestions about how to “Just Fall In,” or skim on down this post, leaping over the reading questions to take today’s poems direct and straight.

However, if you do want to come along on this guided poetry reading journey, read on!

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Going Deeper: Five More Characterization Techniques; How to Read Fiction Step 4 Part 2

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Barefoot young man wearing suspenders sits in wooden chair in middle of dirt road with book open on his head and book pages flying around him in the air. Characterization techniques help characters spring from pages as if real.

Characterization techniques help characters fly from the page. Readers experience them as if they are real people.

In “How to Read Fiction Step 4, Part 1,” we discussed four ways that writers create living characters in fiction, focusing on the four qualities readers are most likely to perceive first: Characterization Through Naming (1), Through Physical Description (2), Through “Tags” and Catchphrases (3), and Through Associated Objects (4). These characterization techniques give readers an immediate and forceful first impression of characters as they first meet them in fiction.

As readers read further and deeper into a tale, they encounter fuller and more subtle means of characterization. Narrators and other characters give readers guidance about main characters. Even more powerful, the characters reveal their own personalities and psyches through their own words and actions. Let’s wade in deeper to see how these techniques work to flesh out fully-developed characters.

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How Characterization Makes Characters Live: How to Read Fiction Step 4 Part 1

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20th century typewriter in turquoise, shown with paper inserted and cup of coffee to the left--writer's characterization tools!

Words are the writer’s only tools for characterization in fiction. Just 26 letters can bring hundreds of characters to life.

Yours could be any one of thousands of great literary characters–Atticus Finch, Jo March, Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennet, Janie Crawford, Clarissa Dalloway, Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, Emma Bovary, Jay Gatsby, Raskolnikov, or the Artful Dodger; all serious readers have their favorites.

The characters in a novel or story are usually the first thing everyone wants to talk about. When I talk to excited readers about fiction they like, most people speak about the fictional characters as if they are real people:

“I love Lizzie Bennett’s independence, and she’s funny!”
“Holden Caulfield is a brat but I like the way he sees through all the fakiness.”
“Gatsby seems so romantic and so lonely.”
“I like watching Janie search so hard for her identity.”
“My heart goes out to Jane Eyre, she’s so mistreated!”

But of course, literary characters are not real people. Writers only make us feel as if they are. How do writers convey to readers the sense that their characters are actual human beings?

Writers use a multitude of clever methods to bring their characters to life. These characterization techniques sometimes vary according to literary fashion, and some endure through every era of storytelling. Learning to spot methods of characterization in fiction helps us come to a deeper understanding of the personality and psychology of a character as the writer conceived it. It also helps us see and enjoy themes or plot conflicts.

Even more, recognizing characterization techniques points out the degree of a writer’s skill, so we can see how one writer differs from another and appreciate excellent fictional artistry all the more.

Woman in Bookshop. Books are lining the walls and woman, wearing skirt, jacket, and light pack, is scanning shelves.

In one bookshop alone are thousands of characters for readers to meet and get to know through clever characterization techniques.

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Appreciate Plot Structure: How to Read Fiction Step 3

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A very tall first hill of a red roller coaster reflects the structure of a fictional plot. Enjoy the ride, but also appreciate the plot structure.

Following a good plot can be as thrilling as riding this roller coaster. Go ahead and enjoy the ride, but also learn to appreciate the plot structure!

At least since Scheherazade wove 1,001 tales for King Shahryar, readers have fallen under the spell of master story-tellers. Though authors think a lot about how to craft their plots, readers don’t often give much thought to how a plot is built, beyond consuming it. We just love being on the roller coaster ride: What happens next? And next? How will the characters ever get out of that mess? And the next, even harder one? How will things turn out for the characters we come to care for?

What most readers want in plot is a fast-paced but also logical chain of events, including some twists and surprises. At story’s finish, everything should just feel right, as if events led to the place they naturally would. Enjoying and critiquing a plot of this familiar type feels easy and natural.

What happens, though, when a work we are reading doesn’t follow the typical plot conventions? Great literature often does not.

Roller coaster riders on this yellow coaster are enjoying the ride just as readers enjoy riding the structure of a good plot. But readers can appreciate plots on a deeper level too.

Riding the plot roller coaster is fun! But there are more ways to enjoy plot than just to consume it.

For one thing, some great works were written before plot as we know it was fully developed. Later writers of great fiction may experiment with plot structures or focus more on other elements of fiction like character or narrator perspectives. Some important works may even avoid bringing the plot to a firm finish or resolution, to make a point or for some other artistic purpose.

Such departures from convention may frustrate some readers who don’t expect them, making it hard for some who don’t find a fast-paced plot full of events, their favorite entry into a story. But unexpected or highly artistic uses of plot can be the very element that lifts readers to a more extraordinary aesthetic experience.

If you want the meaning and power of great literature to open up for you, it helps to consider and appreciate how a plot in fiction is built, not just read to find out what happens next.

The best plots don’t just grow; they are carefully built. Knowing the parts of a typical plot can help you see and enjoy when authors structure them well, or poorly, and also notice when they purposely avoid following conventional plot shapes.

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How to Find Great Literature Online for Free

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Young woman in fuchsia dress sitting at table in restaurant with laptop before her looking at smartphone.

Find Free Literature Online!

Certainly, as we’ve been discussing on Readgreatliterature.com, classic literature from the Western tradition can offer thrilling stories, amazing characters, complex themes, and aesthetic wonders. But there’s another great benefit to reading the classics: you can access most of the great works for free, to read online or on your computer, or even to download to your favorite reading device.

Because so many great works from the past are now in the public domain, many websites have made it their mission to offer a multitude of great texts without charge. Yearning for some Shakespeare? No problem. Get access in five minutes. Moby Dick? A click away. Fiction by Zora Neale Hurston or poetry by Langston Hughes? Easy to find and enjoy. Today I’m going to share some of my favorite websites where you can read great literature online for free, and sometimes even find resources to help you enjoy it more.

Note: If you want ideas for great things to read from the sources listed below, check out these pages:

Literary Classics Timelines and Reading Lists

Is Now the Time to Read that 19th Century Classic?

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How Ideas and Themes Shape Fiction: Reading Fiction Step 2

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Young woman in white top leaning toward shelves of books in a library, gazing at a shelf and smiling.

One of the pleasures of reading the Greats: spotting the Themes.

To Kill a Mockingbird, War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lord of the Rings, Murder on the Orient Express, whatever your current and longtime favorite fiction may be: where do such great stories come from? Whether a story comes largely from the writer’s imagination or directly from true life experience, great works of fiction are never just raw reports of events, whether real-life or imagined. Every fiction is shaped by a multitude of artistic choices designed to give readers an experience, a sense of craft, or even beauty. Often, a great novel or short story shares a new way of thinking about life. In fact, most fiction we cherish as classic is shaped by interesting and weighty ideas. To enjoy these works to the fullest, be on the lookout for ideas that guide the narrative—in other words, its Themes.

Let’s look at one example to see how the Themes, the ideas, can shape an author’s true and raw experience into a great work of fiction.

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Style, the Writer’s Unique Music: Reading Fiction Step 1

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His own style: Man wearing casual jacket and turtleneck playing violin outdoors in front of stone wall, with Vermeer print on wall behind him.

Style is the distinctive music created by an author’s words. Can you hear it?

Style in fiction is the distinctive music created by the way an author handles words. Many readers put Style last on their list of things to notice when reading a fictional narrative. But that’s a mistake, in my view, because when reading literature, HOW something is said is just as important as WHAT is said. Style in fiction is more than just decoration. Indeed, relishing a great writer’s style is one of the finest pleasures of reading, since it is through a writer’s style that we are brought into direct communication with that writer’s mind and personality, with his or her unique way of seeing the world. Even more, through great style, readers are set awash in a distinctive kind of beauty that flows from the sound and sense of language well-handled.

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Just Fall In: How to Read Poems Step 10, Step 1, and Every Step!

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Two skydivers falling through the air.

Just Fall In!

With this post, I draw to a close my series of How to Read Poems, Steps 1 – 10. In these posts, I tried to give you knowledge and perspective you need, along with a step-by-step method to follow, to help you unfold the meaning of classic poems and appreciate their beauty. I’ve seen this method work for many students who, by following and practicing these steps, understand and enjoy poetry for the first time. They are amazed by it. They often say they never realized there was so much to enjoy and appreciate in a poem. Having a methodical close reading technique for unfolding meaning in poems really helps. But here’s a secret: method isn’t everything!

Now I want to share with you a different joyous truth: understanding a poem doesn’t usually begin with any method at all. It begins with a shock, with a possession, with a fall. It doesn’t have to happen at the beginning, at the end, or at any particular point in the poem. Somewhere, anywhere, in that flow of words, the poem reaches out and grabs you, shocks you, puzzles you, or seduces you.

It could be a turn of phrase, a startling idea, a beautiful picture, an amazing sound, a tone of voice—anything. At first reading, you might not understand it at all. That’s OK—you don’t have to understand it yet. All you have to do is to fall in. Around this moment in the poem, that point that truly captivates your mind, the meaning will slowly crystallize.

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How to Read Poems Step by Step: an Index to Steps 1 – 10

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Learn how to unlock the meaning of poems and get more out of the poems you read! Here is a linked index to Read Great Literature’s ten posts that explain the process step-by-step.

Step 1: Notice a Poem’s Title

Step 2: Understanding the Author, Era, and Dramatic Situation of a Poem

Step 3: Experiencing Imagery in Poetry

Step 4: Emotional Tone and Concrete v. Abstract Language in Poetry

Step 5: Distinguishing Literal and Figurative Language in Poetry

Step 6: Understanding Metaphors and Figures of Speech in Poems

Step 7: Expect the “Mind Twist,” the Turn in Meaning in Poems

Step 8: Hear the Magnificent Sounds in Poetry

Step 9: Understanding Formal Rhythm and Meter in Poetry

Step 10 (and Step 1, 2, 3 . . !): Just Fall In!

 

Guided Poetry Read-Along for three different poems HERE

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