Get Smart about reading critically

by DGO Web Administrator

Without saying that you’re illiterate (you’re reading this, after all), let physician and writer David Clark give you a few pointers on what to look for the next time you’ve cracked one open. A book, that is.

What about earning your MFA made you a better reader?

We were required to read and annotate a minimum of 62 novels over the course of two years. For each book, we wrote a summary and detailed analysis. There were assigned readings, but also some latitude to bring your own suggestions. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but this made me a much more analytic reader in terms of reading for more than just enjoyment.

How so?

A lot of people read books and have in mind that they’re going to be like watching a 30-minute action drama so that they’re motivated by surprise or situation. One of the first steps to take in reading for more than enjoyment is to start to look at how the author develops the characters – both what the character thinks, but more importantly what the character does in situations. The next is you want to take a look at how well the author develops the characters’ desires and how well you’re aware of both the desires that are overt and spoken outright, but also those that are hidden.

Have you had an “A-ha!” moment as a reader?

I read Pride and Prejudice when I was 18 and didn’t like it at all. I read it again in my late 50s and discovered an incredible social and class commentary and a morality tale wrapped up in this story about upper-crust British life. I missed it completely the first time I read it. C.S. Lewis said that a good book is one that has to be read more than once. The books don’t change, we do. We read books through the lens of our own experience, and as that experience changes, really good books will have more to offer.

Is there a gateway drug of quality reads?

It’s important to realize that there is no such thing as great book lists. Start with whatever strikes your fancy and begin to expand that. Maria’s (Bookshop) is a great resource. They have some incredibly knowledgeable readers who work there functioning basically as diagnosticians. They’re really good at suggesting books that gently push you.

What recommendations do you like to make?

Jaybar Crow, by Wendell Berry, Plainsong, by a Colorado writer, Kent Haruf, Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. I’m partial to Richard Russo’s books. I’ve also gotten to be fond of Cormac Maccarthy’s writing, though I wouldn’t recommend him to everyone, as it’s … difficult.

A-ha! So it IS necessary to read the difficult stuff!

What matters is when the writing is smartly done. Tobias Wolff’s short stories come to mind. Bret Lott’s Jewel is a simple tale that becomes psychologically complex. Vocabulary is something that sets the tone, and that is not good, bad or otherwise. There are a number of authors who might not expand your vocabulary, but their sentence structure – how those words are put together – might expand what you think a story can be. The use of paragraphs, of stops, the white space; poetic elements of rhythm and rhyme, punctuation so natural you don’t notice it. John Gardner used to say that the writer’s one job is to create the dream for the reader and that anything that gets in the way or that makes the reader come out of the dream is bad writing. Great writers make you notice things without having to put up a sign that says, “Here! Notice This!” The very best writers – the very best books – are those you finish and you can’t answer how good or bad the writing itself was because you were so caught up in the story.

What keeps you a voracious reader?

I vary between fiction and nonfiction. With nonfiction, my reading is driven by my interest in a subject. I do think that fiction tells a truth that can’t be told in nonfiction, even though it might be a story, I think that it often gets at deeper truths. That’s what keeps me going. I’m looking for stories that get at something that we as a society or me as an individual aren’t fully aware of or aren’t willing to look at.

Cyle Talley will talk about books for hours, if you let him. So don’t. If there’s something you want to Get Smart about, email him at: [email protected]


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