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How to Read a Novel for Class

This post was originally published in May 2016

I remember in high school—and, yes, sometimes even in college—I would go to class thinking I was prepared—I’d done the reading!—only to find that I was not. At all. Discussions went way, way overhead my head. Like, I might as well have been a caveman. I hated those moments: not only had I essentially wasted my time doing the reading, but I couldn’t participate in class. I had read, but I hadn’t Read. Has this ever happened to you? Do you want to prevent it? If so, read on for tips on how to read a novel so you’ll be prepared to kick a$$ in any class discussion—or to read any novel that you’re hoping to understand on a deeper level.

1. A lot of books, and especially the fancy Literature you read for school, have epigraphs. Epigraphs are those little italicized quotes at the beginning of a book. Some books have one. Some books have three. Taken together, the epigraphs are meant to point to a certain theme. EPIGRAPHS ARE YOUR FRIEND. They can tell you a TON before you even get to the first page. So: if you don’t know the book/essay/poem the epigraph comes from, Google that ish. Then think about the quote(s). What theme(s) could they be pointing to? Even if you can’t answer that question, you’ll be prepared to wow your teacher with your epigraph research. Major brownie points.

2. Determine point of view (POV). This might be second nature, but it’s also essential. Remember: In order to prepare for class, you need to think not only about what the book’s about, but how it’s structured, what stylistic decisions have been made, and why.  Is it first person? third? What effect does POV have on your reading?

3. Another obvious one—I promise I think you’re smart! It’s just easy to get cocky and overlook some of the most important components when reading too quickly for class—is the narrator. Who is he/she? Is it the same as the protagonist? Is it some omniscient, god-figure? Are they trustworthy or are they totally Holden Caulfield?

4. Ok, it’s obvious, you’ve probably been told to do this since middle school, but annotateNo, I do not mean highlight every other sentence. I mean, circle words that crop up frequently; bracket quotes that seem significant; put question marks next to parts that confuse you; if you have an idea—a connection to make with an earlier part of the book or a possible interpretation—write it down in the margin. I also recommend using the small post-its to mark what you think might be a significant passage. This will make your book look super-thoughtfully read and give you quick access to the major moments. Also: I know many students don’t want to mark up their books in hopes of selling them later but novels are never worth much once they’re used. Skip Starbucks three or four days in a row and you’ll have paid off the book.

5. Keep running lists of characters, place names, novel-specific vocab, and major plot points. If you write it down, you’re more likely to remember it. Plus, you’ll have cheat sheet ready for any last-minute quiz/exam studyingFYI: When I say “novel-specific vocab,” I don’t mean vocab you don’t know, but rather vocab that has been invented for the use of the novel. Most dystopian books have this (think: Animal Farm).

6. Read slowly. Speed-reading is a myth. It’s better to have done half of your assigned reading slowly, annotating and with full comprehension, than to have skimmed the assigned chapters. I promise you’ll have more to say.

7. Chapters: are they long? short? titled? untitled? Are there no chapters at all? What effect do these structural elements have on your reading? How are the chapters organized?

8. …and pretty much ditto for sentences. Every writer has their own prose style that’s always in conversation with the book’s content. What is that style like? Are the sentences long, short, average? Are there many declarative statements (“There is a tree.”) or are the sentences more complicated, with many semi-colons, dashes, colons, commas, ellipses, and other pieces of interesting—might I say intimidating—punctation?

9. Oh, and while you’re thinking about sentences, why not look at the language, or diction (fancy word for “word choice”), as well. Do you need to look up, like, every other word? Or is it pretty easy for you to understand? Why might the author have made that choice? Remember that the time period in which the book is written might be a factor—diction that seems super formal to us now might’ve been downright casual to Jane Austen.

10. Talk it over with a friend. Um, what’s better than talking lit with a buddy? Two minds are always better than one and knowing you and your friend at least seem to have read the novel and also maybe agrees on certain interpretations will bolster your confidence, making you more likely to participate. Literary slumber parties? Yes, please.

11. Were you and your friend totally confused about something? Bring that confusion to class—ask your teacher! It shows you’ve done the reading and you care. Plus, if you’re confused, I guarantee someone else is, too.

12. Identify possible themes. Sometimes you might not be able to do this well until the end of a book, but start thinking about it early. Remember a theme is not just a single word, but a complex idea the writer wants to convey. Questions that can help identify one: What’s this novel about? What’s the primary conflict? How does the protagonist resolve that conflict? What does he/she learn? Can you generalize that lesson to apply to others?

I know this might seem like a lot but most of it should come as second-nature after a while. And remember, brave students: better to have read some carefully than to have read all carelessly.

Do you have any other tips for preparing for class?