Before I begin to enthrall you with my seemingly airtight and omniscient methods for reading novels for academic purposes I have one small, but important, word of discretion. This is how I read novels for academic purposes. Because I’m an English literature scholar I’d say that I have some experience in this regard, but mine is not the only way to do it. That being said, I suppose the audience for this post is more likely an undergraduate who is encountering using novels for academic things for the first time. Indeed, the inspiration for this post came from a recent first-year class I held and I hope I do a better job of explaining myself here than I did on that day.
You may recall my other reading posts, How to Read Academic Books Part 1 and Part 2. I’m looking to do the same sort of thing here, except this isn’t about reading academic books per se, but rather reading novels for an academic purpose. This ain’t your mama’s book club I’m talking about here, although that does seem like it would be a hoot.
First of all, reading a novel for an academic purpose likely means one of two things:
1) it is on the syllabus for a course you’re taking, or
2) you’re reading for your qualifying exams or dissertation*
Either way, you need to take into account a bunch of stuff that normal people who read for fun would never have to think of. I would usually say about other kinds of texts that you should take into account what’s on the cover, its layout, font, etc but novels are a funny thing. There seems to me to be different rules when it comes to assessing the physicality of a novel over, say, a theory text. I usually don’t pay as much attention to the packaging of the book if what I’m reading is a modern reprint of a classic since most of what I care about is what’s inside. However, if I’m reading a new(ish) novel or one whose author is still alive and not out of copyright, I tend to pay much closer attention to that detail. The following is my favourite example.
This is a cover for Anne of Green Gables (1908), the LM Montgomery classic that is dear to my people (but not me personally. I couldn’t care less about Anne, having been subjected to summers of, what I’m going to call, Annundation on family trips). This cover caused quite a stir earlier this year when it was released and I am using it to illustrate how you can’t really say much about an older novel based on the cover. Montgomery’s been dead since 1942 and the novel itself is over 100 years old. Unless one is doing a study of contemporary print culture representations of Anne Shirley, the above cover probably won’t factor much into your study of the novel itself.
On the other hand, when looking at a newer novel I take the cover into much broader consideration of the work as a whole. I’ve chosen Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) to illustrate what I mean.
The above covers are not the only ones ever released for the book, though they are likely the most common. I would make the argument that the covers and the physicality of a novel such as this matters more to the study of what is inside than the above mentioned Anne cover. While you still ought not to necessarily judge the book by its cover, I would say one ought to at least take it into consideration, depending on what it is you want to say about the novel.
So, after you’ve had a good look at the outside of the novel, what do you do? I always tell students to read the introductory notes if there are any. The purpose of this is twofold: 1) it places the book in a context the student may not be familiar with (in addition to giving some insight into a bunch of factors to do with the novel, such as an author’s biography), and 2) it will sometimes spoil the plot. Why would I want to spoil the plot of something I’m about to read? Well, because when reading for academic purposes, plot is a secondary concern. ‘Spoiler Alert’ is a bullshit term that should never be uttered in an academic context. I encourage you to spoil the ending for yourself and others because then you can look beyond it and focus on what’s important. Maybe I ought to temper this advice with a warning to not spoil plots outside of academia; that just makes you a jerk.
Speaking of which, what is important when reading novels for academic purposes? The short, though unhelpful, answer is that everything is important. All you need to do is take a look at any scholarly edition of a novel and read the supplementary materials to see that everything means something. Some of the best examples of these kinds of editions are from the Bedford/St. Martin’s Press. For instance, their edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) has essays exploring gender criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, new historicism, and deconstruction in addition to various contextual materials. What this added material shows is that there are many ways of reading, approaching, and critiquing any work. It does not mean that you will necessarily be expected to be the expert in all or any of these methods of critical analysis, though it is helpful to consider the novel’s various layers. To this end, make notes about the text you are reading; there are many methods for doing so. I personally like to mark directly in the book’s margins (if I own the book, of course) so that I create something of a second or concurrent text/conversation with the author, narrator, or characters. I look for repetition and things that might be important to understanding something specific about a text. I try to answer the question of the novel’s purpose and what problems it arouses and solves and why. Does the novel say anything about the context in which it was written? How would it have been received when it was first released? What has been its reception since? How does it relate to other works of the same genre/period/medium/etc?
These are just a few of the questions I keep in mind when reading novels for academic purposes. I am totally leaving out a bunch of stuff and I will update this post or add others as I think of things I have forgotten. I also encourage you, oh wise blog reader, to add to this woefully partial list I have provided. I’d like to take this opportunity to reiterate that my way is not the only or definitive way of reading novels in an academic setting.
*There is a secret third option here and that is you have studied literature for so long that everything you read is read for academic purposes. You cannot switch it off. Somebody, please make it stop!