Temerity Jane
08. 09. 2011

Now that I am watching John Green of the Vlogbrothers dissect The Great Gatsby with all that critical reading stuff I had no time or patience for in high school (also, only pretended to read The Great Gatsby in high school), I wonder if I need to go back and re-read all the crap I blew off back then. Because, you know what? Aside from Jane Eyre and maybe Emma, nothing that falls into the “classics” circle really overlaps with my “favorites” circle. And I think that’s because I was turned off from that kind of stuff in high school, because I was an idiot who thought critical reading for themes and symbolism was a waste of my time and probably just stuff the teacher made up, because, really? The author just buried all that stuff in there? Why, to make my life hard? AS IF. (It was the 90s.)

Except, yeah, they kind of do bury all that stuff in there. And I want to say I regret not being more critical in my critical reading back in high school, but let’s be honest. I don’t. I was an honor roll student without reading any books. I feel I made pretty excellent use of my time back in high school. I didn’t not read (what?) any books. I mean, I didn’t read the ones I was assigned. And I still did pretty okay.

But I’m wondering if now, in my totally mature almostthirtyhood, I am ready to give some of these books another try, maybe with a little more patience. Except for Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I won’t. I can’t even remember the slightest hint of what the plot of this book is, but I distinctly remember flinging myself to my bedroom floor when I attempted to read it my senior year of high school. So. No. Won’t be having any part of that again.

But then I remember that I have about three minutes a day to actually read. That I read books one page at a time. Okay, everyone reads books one page at a time, but I mean one page per session of reading. That it took me an entire month to read A Discovery of Witches, even though everyone else in the world lapped me twice on Twitter during my reading. And I also remember that I have a Kindle loaded with fun books and I’m reading The True Meaning of Smekday.

But maybe – MAYBE – I don’t have to get all D’Ubervilley. Maybe all books have something to offer to the critical reader. Right? Maybe, in The True Meaning of Smekday, there’s some deep symbolism to when the main Boov, J.Lo, is wearing is ghost costume, like when Holden is wearing his stupid flap-hat.

Maybe I’ll just watch all of the John Green videos on The Great Gatsby and continue to say I’ve read it, like I have since high school.

Tell me the truth. As an adult who is out of school (I KNOW THAT SOME OF YOU ARE NOT ADULTS AND ARE NOT OUT OF SCHOOL OR DON’T CONSIDER YOURSELVES ADULTS OR THINK THE WOOOORRLD IS YOUR SCHOOL), are you a critical reader? How often are you picking up books that could be found on a high school honors English reading list? If you do help yourself to classics on the regular, are you reading them to read them, or are you applying your deep reading skills to discover themes, symbolism and whatnots?

Oh, MAN, it used to make me SO ANGRY when a teacher would ask me to choose and discuss a major theme of the book, because I never grasped the definition of the word “theme” as teachers wanted me to understand it in that context. Um, plot? Moral? What? I don’t know. Never got it. Don’t explain it to me. I’m skipping that. Forever.

What about books that fall outside of what we, right now, consider to be the high school English class classics? Do you read all of your books with a critical eye, or do you just read for enjoyment? Or do you think that deep and critical reading of all books is part of the enjoyment?

I really want to know your honest answers. Don’t pretend, because I’m past the point in life where I’m impressed by intellectualism, pseudo- or realdo-. I’m more impressed with people who can read an entire book in a reasonable number of days and also keep the dog hair tumbleweeds under control and wash the stank off their gross baby once in a while. I am not that person. That is the person who impresses me. So you don’t have to feel like you need to be impressive in the comments.

I do want to know, though. Do you make a place for deep/critical reading and examination of texts for all the literary businessy things in your everyday reading, out of school? To all books or just “classics?” (I use quotes because I suppose it is hard to predict right now what exactly will be the “classics” of the future, and you could be reading one and not know it, so we’ll just go with “classics,” as defined by high school summer reading lists.) Or do you read just for pleasure? OR? Is a deep reading a part of the pleasure of reading for you?

I enjoy reading. I do it a lot. When Phil comes home for lunch, I always want to run and take a shower (see above re: gross baby stank), and I take a book with me. Into the shower. Not into the bathroom. Into the SHOWER. And that’s about the only time I get to read right now. But I do enjoy it. But are you enjoying it more? Or did you leave behind the critical reading practices when you turned in your final essay?


(Related but not related to my questions, I have always been impressed (well, throughout the life of the Vlogbrothers YouTube career) by their – specifically John Green’s – belief in young adults. Both in general – to do big things, impressive things, and world-changing things – and specifically – to read tough books deeply and critically, to understand them on a level that most adults do not, and to enjoy learning how to read deeply and critically despite those who might not have faith in the ability of young people to do that. If you know a young person who is not involved in this community, I highly encourage you to encourage them, because it’s something I enjoy now, as an adult, and can only imagine the difference it probably would have made in my life as a teenager.)

78 responses to “John Green may possibly have ruined, saved, and/or somehow modified reading for me.”

  1. Sarah says:

    I’m an English major, and generally when reading a book through the first time (even if it’s for school, I almost always read books twice if I have the time for that) I don’t tend to do critical analysis. I read it through for pleasure or for assignment or whatever the first time, and it usually takes me between 3-7 days depending on how engaged I am in the material…but I find myself more and more now, on subsequent readings of books I read for pleasure, going back and doing critical analysis. Finding threads of themes, moral views, symbolism in colors or names, etc, etc. And it’s interesting to me because I feel it enhances the pleasure from the book, if I can read the third book in a series and in my brain go “Oh, right, this is referencing that secondary theme from the first book, yay continuity!”

    That being said…I would also dearly love to know how you read in the shower. Because I would so do that.

  2. rebecca says:

    I got turned off fiction in high school when we spent a YEAR on Lord of the Flies. I am not kidding. A YEAR. So now I read almost exclusively nonfiction and I Love it, and find truth more interesting than fiction, anyway. But, since you are mentioning John Green, I did enjoy An Abundance of Katherines.

  3. I am 19 and in college currently.
    I didn’t read the Great Gatsby in high school, I had an option from a few books and I decided on Into Thin Air, instead, since Gatsby was an OLD book. And I didn’t want to read an OLD book. I was way too cool for that. (Into Thin Air is a fantastic book, by the way).
    I am really glad I chose not to read it in high school,though, because I think it would have given the book more of a negative connotation because, you know, it was for school. Also, my teacher made reading books really boring with stupid little reading circles (Not a lot of critical thinking with Into Thin Air). Anyway, I am happy that I am reading it with John Green as the “teacher” because it is a much better experience.
    I never read critically in high school (I never had to, they were high school English was super easy for me) and I haven’t really had to in college. My English courses were writing based, so I haven’t ever been pushed to read critically.
    I think that is one my favorite things about Nerdfighteria is that I can ask someone on YourPants (IF IT WASN’T HACKED)what a good book to read is and then we can discuss it in a much more intense (not sure if that’s the right word) and deep way than I would have ever in high school or even in college, thus far.
    Just DFTBA ever.

  4. ZombiePirate says:

    I did English literature for one of my A-levels, so that was two whole years of pure critical reading and I hated it. I’ve always loved books and those two years tried hard to destroy my love of reading. I read for escapism and to enjoy the authors works, I don’t need to try and figure out that the weather is representative of the mood of the protagonists subconcious that he is striving to come to terms with. I just want to read the book and enjoy it.

  5. I’m not a fan of reading critically at all. I went through a phase in junior high/early high school where I read every “classic” book I could find on any cheesy list of “books for the college bound” or whatever, but even those I just read to get into the story. I don’t look for themes or pull out symbolisim or whatnot. I sometimes WANT to be that person, but I’m not. Which is why I fail spectacularly at book clubs, despite being a big reader. So I leave all the analysis to my two-degrees-in-English wife. (*snore*)

  6. Misfit says:

    I just finished Silas Marner. Mostly because I knew I had not given it a fair shake in school. It was definitely worth the revisit. Not only for pleasure (who knew that was going to happen?) but also for just a teensy bit of critical reading (What? Money doesn’t bring happiness? Who knew?).

  7. Chaninn says:

    Regarding reading in the shower, I don’t know how to do that with a regular book, but ebooks have waterproof covers that can be bought cheaply off of Amazon (or anyplace that has ebook covers). Just slip the waterprooof cover on and away you go!

    I prefer to read for pleasure and not analyze anything. For me the best story is one that I can sympathize with the character, the plot moves quickly and the world is well developed.
    I can, and have, analyzed “classics” and modern fiction, but I don’t read for the themes or symbolism. If pushed, I can identify the themes/symbolism/hidden meanings in just about any type of book but I definately prefer just getting lost in the story!

  8. Megan says:

    I want to know what are some hidden stories and themes people have discovered in books (classic or not) because I just read every comment and I have NO idea if I am a critical reader or not. Am I picking up on these things? No clue. But I love to read and do so for enjoyment.

  9. Flaime says:

    I haven’t read critically since I dropped out of graduate school for lack of tolerance of the “post modernist” ideal. I got entirely sick of having to deal with post modern interpretations of everything.

  10. Lisa says:

    I read romance novels. That’s it. They might be vampire romance novels, or young adult lit disguised as a romance novel, but 99% of my book reading is romance. I like happy endings. I picked up Game of Thrones once, read fifty pages into it until the kid gets thrown off the tower, and thought “nothing good will happen to these people.” I flipped to the end, and lo and behold, I was right, no happy ending.

    I was lamenting the other day that I get so little time to read books–maybe one or two a month, but then realized, I do read, every single day. Its just the format has changed. I follow over 300 blogs, so time I used to spend picking up a book has been replaced by time spent in front of the computer screen.

    I read for enjoyment these days, and don’t feel guilty that I can’t discuss themes in Faulkner. If I don’t find it enjoyable, then I’m not going to pick it up.

  11. cakeburnette says:

    Lovelovelove to read. But my two kids are 15 months apart, so I didn’t read anything that wasn’t a board book for about 5 years. Maybe longer. Anyway, they are large now, and are faced with their own literature assignments, so I have time to read again! I DO read a lot of the “classics”–mainly because they are FREE on the Kindle. But I’ve always enjoyed reading that type of book as long as I don’t have to dissect them. So, NO I do not critically examine the books I read, even though I read a lot of “classics.” Which reminds me, my husband once told a professor that some writer’s purpose in writing some “classic” was that he was hungry and need to earn some money. I don’t think he got an “A.” Although I think it is fairly true in a LOT of cases.

    Also? I just read “Tess of the D’Ubervilles” recently. THAT WAS A HORRIBLE BOOK.

  12. Carrie says:

    I used to teach HS English, which was the first time I’d actually read any of the books you are supposed to read for HS English. I really loved most of them, but don’t understand why we would expect teenagers to get anything out of them. I don’t really read that type of book any more, but I probably should.

    Some of my faves from HS reading lists: To Kill a Mockingbird, All Quiet on the Western Front, Arsenic and Old Lace, The Good Earth, Joy Luck Club, Of Mice and Men. I never did learn to like Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick or The Red Badge of Courage.

  13. ProudNerdMom says:

    In about 10 – 12 years, you will experience one of the sweetest moments of parenthood: when Penny hands you a book she got in school and says “here, read this so we can talk about it.” It happened with each of my kids, and it was truly beautiful. A way of sharing what they find important to think about and figure out.

    Then, when she hits high school, you can read the classics she is assigned. But by then, she will not want to talk to you about anything, so you’ll be reading alone. But you’ll have the time for it, especially if you keep books in the car to read while waiting to pick her up from various afterschool events you need to shuttle her to and from. Unless you are luckier than I am, and live in an area with decent mass transit.

    I agree with the commenter who thinks of her books as food: “Sometimes all I want is cupcakes and pizza and other times I want steak and filet mignon. My romance novels with half naked hotties on the cover are the cupcakes. A tale of two cities is my steak.” My daughter and I talk about potato chips (quick, light reading — amusing but with no depth, you could sit down next to a bowl of them and crunch away, enjoying each in the moment but forgetting them almost instantly) versus more nutritious food (classics, non-fiction, etc. that sticks with you, makes you think, and even changes you) I could no sooner get through a life without reading than I could a life without food, even if there were some times I was too busy to read books. When I feel like I’m coming down with a cold, I stop by the library. If I’m going to be out of the action, pizza delivers, but books don’t.

    One of my top ten reasons for breastfeeding was that it left a hand free to turn pages. I had no guilt about ignoring the baby as she ate, because if I made eye-contact with her, she smiled back and the milk leaked out the corners of her mouth. So I left her to feed undisturbed while I read.

    Kid2 got to listen to books being read to 3 year old kid1 while he had his dinner, since being plugged into my boop kept him quiet enough to give my attention to her. That may be why he learned to read so early — watching and listening to her every night as we shared books and our special time together.

    I also found the public library a wonderful place to go with kids from early on. They even had the sense to put the parenting books in the children’s book section, and the new book section nearby, so I could get stuff for myself without trying their patience. Long before they were old enough for the children’s library programs for little ones, they loved the toys in the board book section, and watching the other babies and children. Also, that puppets could be checked out along with books.

    I did have a problem with what I called “conservation of symbolism” in college English — that I thought we were getting more out of it than the author put into it. But I’ve mellowed as I’ve aged, and now can just enjoy the themes I pick up in “nutritious” books without sweating the details. There will be no final exam. Life is the final exam.

    I loved John Green’s vlog post about why literature is important because it helps us understand other people. One of the best ever. Everyone should watch it. In fact, I’ll go find it so I can post the link. (long pause while I catch up on vlogbrothers and hunt through their old videos)

    ok, part of it is in
    http://www.youtube.com/user/vlogbrothers#p/search/4/9jFQR2FUEm4 especially starting around 1:38

    and then more starting around a minute and a half into


  14. Sandy says:

    I really enjoyed critical reading in high school. I enjoyed the discussions that we had in class, and analyzing different themes, characters, what have you. I was not always the best at it, but I enjoyed it.

    At this point I don’t seek to read critically. I read for pleasure, whether its a “classic” or the latest best seller. It’s an enjoyable escape from the “real world”.

    Though I don’t personally still aim to read critically, I do find watching John Green’s vlogs on critical reading, and currently “The Great Gatsby” highly enjoyable.

  15. Wulfa says:

    I was a homeschooled book nerd so I thought it would be cool to read every book on the Harvard recommended reading list. Didn’t get through it but read quite a few “classics”.

    Now the only time I have for reading (outside of college courses) is during the summer and I’m not sure I could bear it if I had to read a serious or literary book. I love to read campy science fiction and mysteries.

    That being said, I find myself connecting themes from one book with other books. It’s not something I’m trying to do; years of having to find themes and motifs seem to have spilled over into my daily life.

    And right now I’m making it through “100 Years of Solitude”. So not a fan of magical realism.

  16. Metacognitivethoughts says:

    I was just driving home and the radio starting playing American Pie. Which had me thinking of a point to add here. American Pie is a fun song to listen to, interesting in the variety of rhythms and word choices, but when you understand some of the events that the song is talking about it makes it a better listening experience. I think the same could be true of critical reading.