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Thread: How to read

  1. #1
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    Question How to read

    In your experience, was that ability to read through difficult texts acquired or was it innate? I am sure it gets better with practice, but is there a pattern behind understanding?

    I know that understanding symbolism, metaphors, and other literary techniques come through practice. But what about understanding the sentences? I find myself having trouble understanding what the author is saying in a literal sense, let alone the meaning behind it (which I know are related). Right now I am trying to read Nietzsche's Zarathustra but I cannot grasp most of it. And I do not think that he is one of the most difficult writers out there. And when I do understand what he says, I do not know if he is being serious or if he is mocking the reader. Similarly, I have not understood Homer, Dante, Foucault, and others. So instead of getting frustrated and giving up, I'm trying to understand how people have managed before me.

    I've looked for answers online but found only unsatisfactory ones (read twice, summarize, highlight main points, paraphrase). Are those answers enough? In my experience, if you cannot read it or understand something different, reading it several times will not make you understand it better. Reading more books has not been given me any signs of improvement either.

    Is the ability to comprehend innate? Are some people just born with it? Or is there a systematic way of learning?

    Once you can understand everything Shakespeare, can you understand Friedrich Nietzsche, Henry James, and James Joyce? I know some are more difficult than others, but do they all have the same basic principle behind them or is each author unique in that sense?

    Should I just start with easier books and slowly move up? (Which ones would those be?) And how does one build up on it? Buying annotated books and then trying to figure it out by myself with practice? Discussing it with friends? Help would be appreciated

    I hope that the preamble filters answers like: "Each author is unique. You cannot simplify literature to that. You must read closely. Those books are filled with references" I am sure you know what I mean instead. Otherwise, tell me so and I will try and clarify.

    So the two big questions I'm asking are:
    1) How can I understand the literal surface?
    2) How can I understand the meaning behind it?

    Thanks people,

  2. #2
    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    Well, interesting question... With me, it just clicked. I was 16, read my first book about a boy whose parents and brother were killed because of a nasty coincidence during WOII in the Netherlands and looks for answers all through his later life. It just clicked and everything made sense to me. My teacher (who I was writing I book review for was amazed adn did not believe that I wrote that review myself and asked for my source. She eventually gave me a 96% and ceased to despise me ever since.

    But I did get more out of that same book when I read it again 10 years later because I noticed other things (national adjectives without capital letters f.e.). I guess practice played a big part.

    I would say, do not start with the most difficult ones, i.e. do not start with things too far removed from our contemporary way of writing and understanding. Medieval literature, f.e., is very much based on metaphor and sometimes very far-fetched. I learned a lot in uni about that and it helps me, but if you don't know, it is kind of a nice story without meaning. In fact those dragons, reoccurring situations etc do mean something, only it is not so straightforward. Mostly works carry an educational message. Read a book about that type of stuff and then read some works (annotated?).
    This category also includes philosophy in my opinion. Philosophy, and possibly also writings of philosophers, tend to use another type of word use than other 'normal' writers. Because philosophy is based on thinking and feeling, it cannot always be explained in plain words because thinking goes further than the mere word. So, philosphers tend to use the same words, but with more Ideas (in the Platonic way as the ultimate (divine) Truth) behind it. So the word 'real' or 'true' might carry some additional meaning to what you perceive it to be. And that also depends on the philosopher you are reading, ironically. Aristotle defined 'real' and 'true' differently to others. Hence, the philosophers that adhere to Arisotle tend to use the words 'true' and 'real' in the same way, but might also add to the meaning themselves. Philosophy though, takes just a little studying and that is fine. Most philosophers do explain what they think, fortunately, so you only maybe need to read some stuff of a specialist in that philosopher to be able to comprehend it. I believe it is given to you or not, but maybe you can learn it. I try, but I am not confident, given that I totally mucked up in uni.

    Other than that, start with something pretty straightforward. There are the books which everyone has to read as a teenager, because they are easy (or at least have a pretty easy first layer that even starting readers can comprehend). Shakespeare is such one, I believe, but he has more to it. At any rae, he wrote for the great public on the parterre (hence the sword fights and loving balcony scenes), but he also wrote for the highly educated public that could pay for a seat and even for a cushion.

    Just ask yoursef the question 'why'. Why does this or this character do this or that? It introduces you to thinking like that character and to understand the emotions of it. And then finally the 'why' of what happens (down to the writer). Why did the author write this story or had this or this happen? 'Why did the writer write this?' can be a useful question for highly allegorical things (things that under no circumstances can be real, that have 'an unreal' feel to it). 'Why did the author have this or that happen?' is a useful question when it comes to symbolical happenings in a book that is in itself quite probable.

    I'll give a few examples to humour you:

    Saramago's The Cave is so strange. It is about a pot-maker, possibly in Portugal (as Saramago is Portuguese), who delivers his pots to the nearby Centre ( a huge shopping mall). Nothing strange about this at first sight, only the city is divided in 'girdles' (Centre, 1st, 2nd an 3rd girdle, each with a special need: shopping, living, agriclture, industry) and the Centre has not only shopping in it, but also beeches, cinemas, nature walks what-not, and living quarters for the guards. The pot-maker has a daughter who is engaged or married to one of those guards. In the end something happens, but I won't tell you what. You see, the Centre is too big and unrealistic to be anything real, or even remotely possible. Or this one: The Stone Raft, about the Iberian peninsula that breaks off French and drifts away, into the Atlantic. Why did Saramago write these things? He has an issue, that comes back in his books all the time and he writes allegorical stories about it. What is that issue? This type is quite hard though

    An easier way of allegory is The Pilgrim's Progress. A main character Christian has to go on a tour etc. Look it up on wikipedia and you'll see that that is an easier allegory than the first about Christian (if you see what I mean: his name says it itself). This is of the educational type, butit is also 17the century, so easier in order to apeal to the bigger public and to educate that same public.

    Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is about a man (Dorian Gray) who wants to keep his youth. At a certain time, he sees his portrait (painted recently by a friend) change for the worse, he himself, though, stays the same. Now, this changing of a portrait is not realistic, but, why did the author put that in? What is the message behind that? It also carries an allusion to Faust, but that left aside...

    Floods/Fires are also something interesting. What does water/fire stand for?

    Allusion is also such an important feature. There are implicit allusions and explicit. Explicit is that the title of a work is sited or that a few verses are quoted. That's easy. It says 'Gulliver's Travels was in the library' (what does Gulliver's Travels have to do with this story), 'he looked like Hamlet's Polonius' or something, or 'he felt like [another character]'. Who was this Polonius and what does the author allude to or seems to want to allude to? It is not always straightforward, but mostly it alludes to the character's way of thinking, or how we should see him (if the author is using irony). Or, in the case of Gulliver's Travels, to the theme of the novel, or at least that part of it if it is kind of clear. Implicit allusions are situations, dialogues, relationships between characters, images and such things that are not explicitly quoted to be taken from somewhere, but that are clearly inspired on another work. Recognising them needs experience. If you hanev't read the work alluded to, it is not really possible to recognise the allusion, only maybe if one comes across an essay on it or so.

    F.e. The Picture of Dorian Gray as quoted above, in its painting that takes the marks of Dorian's doings carries an implicit allusion to Goethe's or anybody else's Faust without really naming the work explicitly. What does that say about Dorian Gray? Good or bad character, or sad character? At a certain time in The Mill on the Floss the two main characters Maggie and Tom Tulliver walk towards their new lot with a bankrupted father, and Eliot describes it in a way that offers reminiscences of Miton's Paradise Lost when Adam and Eve leave Paradise. What does that say about their situation? They are children now, but what does it say about their life from now on? Hardy writes a scene of darkness and fire and has Alec d'Urberville turn up to seduce Tess which offers thoughts of the same Paradise Lost. What does that say about Alec? Good or bad character? Will Tess be better off with this man or not?

    I hope I helped you, but really, just read, read, read, and maybe consut essays about the work you want to understand.
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

    "Je crains [...] que l'me ne se vide ces passe-temps vains, et que le fin du fin ne soit la fin des fins." (Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Acte III, Scne VII)

  3. #3
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    Zarathustra is unreadable. Find another book, almost any other book. Don't worry about not finding some texts unreadable. There are more readable texts out there than you could ever read. Read them instead.

  4. #4
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    You don't have to understand everything. University professors don't understand every sentence of every book they cover in their classes, and they teach other people for a living. Especially when it comes to literature, it is impossible to understand every single thing you read, or at least understand it the way the author truly intended it to be understood. As long as you comprehend most of it and pick up on the emotions and moods conveyed, then you should be fine.

    Also, keep in mind that many of the literary greats abused drugs and alcohol; so sometimes even they didn't know what they meant when they wrote certain things (or at least they thought they did when they were under the influence . I've read some pretty impenetrable sentences by some great thinkers and writers over the years. Sometimes you either have to make an educated guess or simply forget it and move on. Life is too short.
    Last edited by Vautrin; 12-25-2009 at 10:58 AM.

  5. #5
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Always ask the same questions - how is y constructed in x. For example, how is gender constructed in Orlando.

    Or, you don't even need to go that way - how are chapters divided in Dickens.

    Of course, this technique works better on the reread, on the first read, I just take notes of themes and characters, and hope to gain a basic understanding - it may also help to think of a few general themes that seem central to most texts, and work with them.

  6. #6
    Look, you can't just expect to jump right into the deep ocean without having first learnt to swim. I'm not being patronising but some of the writers you are quoting are in no way easy to read. Do you really expect to be able to compete with a world class swimmer wearing armbands - OK, with the swimming metaphors, (or analogies) but still it is just not that easy all the time?

    I mean Foucault, Joyce, Nietzsche are not going to yield much on a first read, certainly to those unacquainted with them. The fact that you are reading them though suggests that you are not an inexperienced reader??

    However, to tackle your questions, I think that the very best advice is just to read a huge amount of material. It is not that simple but that is basically the answer. It certainly helps to have taught lessons of course, but you really do just need to get stuck in and that is about all there is to it. I think apart from a very few then reading complex material is not innate, but something that is acquired through the process of reading and reflecting over time. I'm sure that there are some really smart minds out there who can pick up Foucault for the first time and "get it" all in one gulp, but I think they are few and far between to be honest - and that is certainly not me!!

    If you want my advice, and I'm coming from someone with 6 years undergraduate experience, I would tackle such texts in small chunks and follow them up with decent commentary texts for a while - at least compliment your reading with them. When I say decent, I mean decent, recommended texts and not garbage like sparknotes.

    Certainly your approach with easier texts and building up is one decent method, but of course it depends greatly on what you want to read, so it is a little difficult to recommend on a blind basis. Other than that, following a degree course if you are not doing so would set you well on the way to getting a good grip with some of the most challenging texts out there.

    There are no magic shortcuts.
    Last edited by LitNetIsGreat; 12-25-2009 at 04:12 PM.

  7. #7
    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    Neely pretty much says it all. Any art form involves a language and a vocabulary and a history that must be learned for a fuller understanding. It is highly unlikely that you will understand a Wagnerian opera or a Cubist painting or Dante's Comedia without first developing an understanding of the language and vocabulary through which they were expressing themselves... and this involves experience. Certainly, I salute your efforts at tackling challenging texts, but do not assume that your first perceptions are the end of the matter. Return to these same texts again after you have gained more reading under you belt. You will find that the works change as you do.
    Beware of the man with just one book. -Ovid
    The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.- Mark Twain
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  8. #8
    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    +1 to the two posts directly above me. To your primary questions:

    1) As far as literal surfaces it's best to have a good vocabulary (or something like an electronic dictionary handy) and a good grasp on sentence structures. I say this because in terms of surface all there is the semantics of language and how that language is ordered and how the two effect each other. Every writer will have their own style that will emerge and an astute reader should start being able to predict how a writer's paragraphs, for example, are, in general, going to flow. That's not to say that writers (especially the great ones) won't surprise you or you won't encounter a 4,400 word sentence in Joyce that makes you go "WTF?", but, in general, it should make the "surfaces" easier to grasp. There are definitely writers out there that can be especially complex and difficult and you've listed many of the MOST difficult which will likely give everyone but extremely intellectual English professors fits.

    2. Understanding the subtext is about understanding the work in contexts; how does the writer's historical, social, religious, etc. milieu or the writer's beliefs, opinions, psychology, etc. effect what they're observing, depicting, commenting on, etc. The important question to always be acting is "why". Of course, not everything has a definitive why to it, but when you come across something in a book that's especially provocative, unusual, especially poignant, profound, or interesting it's a good idea to ask why it's like that, what is the author saying, what is this suggesting given everything else I know about the work, etc.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

  9. #9
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    Well, I just finished today the Nietzsche's book. I greatly enjoyed reading him. What a mind!

    There were, of course, a lot of things that I did not comprehend. Yet, I got a hold of many of his ideas. But when I was trying to explain them to someone else, I realized that I could not go through the same arguments as Nietzsche did. The lesson: I should take close notes whenever I come across a good idea in a book (but I guess this works mostly for philosophy-like texts)!!

    I decided to go through the reading even if I was not understanding much of it. Yet, after reading the replies I found that it was easier to follow his ideas.

    If I had to give advise to others, I would say that there must be a balance between reading very close with the text and just going the opposite direction and trying to get the very general idea. I also learned that the first few pages were the most difficult for me and that I was able to better understand the sentences once I got an overview of the author's style, like Stlukesguild and MorpheusSandman said (the same thing happened when I read Shakespeare for the first time). MorpheusSandman’s advice was also very good. Keeping a dictionary made the ride easier.

    I definitely need to reread the book several times if I want to get a better understanding of Zarathustra.

    And something else: I was reading about Harold Bloom. Just reading about how important literature is was very motivating. Being able to see literature as this grand, almost obscure phenomenon made me want to spend all of my waking hours reading (and sleep less!). I also read about how this guy would be able to tackle 2 or 3 novels per night. Having him in mind, I was able to read for long hours at a time.

    Kiki1982: It was really difficult asking the why's since I was struggling so hard to understand the meaning of Nietzsche's words. It was very apparent that he was trying to tell the readers things (when he repeated words or when he would omit phrases), but the question "why?" did not give me any answers. However, I think this technique would be a wonderful ally on my second or third reading (or not so difficult books).

    I did see the importance of allusions, though. Nietzsche uses several authors heavily. I am sure I would have gotten a much better understanding had I read those other authors.

    I guess the "just read, read, read" part of your advice is what I need to do the most!

    Vautrin: I did move on in a lot of Nietzsche’s passages. Being able to get through the book felt like a big accomplishment.

    JBI: I agree with you about the rereading part. I focused on just trying to grasp the general concepts on my first reading.

    Neely: I got this idea from class when others were getting the material the first time they read it. But I guess they are just very bright individuals.

    I used to consult Sparknotes... I guess I won’t anymore, haha. Where can I find other sources? Are you talking on-line or go-to-the-library type?

    Thank you everyone for your comments!

  10. #10
    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    In most cases it is ok to get a grasp by just reading the summary of a work and an analysis of some kind so you can see what your writer meant when putting that allusion in.

    If Nietzsche was talking aout other philosophers though, you might encounter problems, but general studies have been made about the influence of the one philosopher on the other. Some Wikipedia-entries are really good (if they are referenced), and mostly in their own language. Otherwise, here is a link to the Philosophy Encyclopedia wich is quite alright, I think (though philosophy geeks may possibly find some wrong things in it).
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

    "Je crains [...] que l'me ne se vide ces passe-temps vains, et que le fin du fin ne soit la fin des fins." (Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Acte III, Scne VII)

  11. #11
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    "Thus Spake Zarathustra is now unreadable" - Harold Bloom

  12. #12
    Registered User virginiawang's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Neely View Post
    When I say decent, I mean decent, recommended texts and not garbage like sparknotes.
    I do noy understand in what sense you considered sparknotes as being something similar to garbage. When I had to read plays written by Shakespeare in college, I did find cliffnotes being helpful. Even now, I will go to their website and read some essays or plot analyses once in a while. I don't think it is so terrible. It is written in plain English, and perhaps in a more oral style. It makes certain ideas clear at once.
    By the way, what are some of the references you referred to as decent texts ?
    Last edited by virginiawang; 12-30-2009 at 08:39 AM.

  13. #13
    Registered User Red-Headed's Avatar
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    Also Sprach Zarathustra is one of my favourite works by any writer. Do I understand it? Do you need to understand a text to enjoy it? I think that is an interesting question. I would certainly read as much as you can about Nietzsche & his particular philosophical views to understand his works. On the other hand, just enjoy what you can. I think greater understanding will come eventually.
    docendo discimus

  14. #14
    Registered User Desolation's Avatar
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    If you're interested in gaining a comprehensive knowledge of Nietzsche, I recomend the following books:

    Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist by Walter Kaufmann, an excellent introduction to Nietzsche that provides a scope from which to read Nietzsche's works.
    The Portable Nietzsche, published by Penguin/Viking, a great collection of a few of his important works.
    The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, published by Modern Library(/Random House, I believe), contains the rest of his essential works.

    After reading Kaufmann's scholarly work, you should have much less trouble understanding the Great Immoralist.

  15. #15
    Drama Queen
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    I agree with you, Desolation. Kaufmann's work is by far the best introduction to Nietzsche

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