Saturday, February 26, 2011

"The Art of Reading": Audiocourse by Dr. Timothy Spurgin

Update - 2/26/2011
Finished the course and would highly recommend.

In a recent post, I talked about an interesting and thought-provking course that I have been listening to in the car called The Art of Reading.   Lots of good information that I will chronicle in this post.

Artful reading
  • Take reading more seriously
  • Formalist approach - close reading of the words on the page
Authors: Real and Implied
  • Think of authors more like a character
  • Most authors do not begin with a theme
  • T.S Eliot in the essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, he promotes the idea that the author's personality has little to do with his/her writing.  There is a difference between the "man who suffers" and the "mind that creates."  It is the creative mind that influences the writing, not the person who suffers everyday life. 
  • In Wayne C. Booth's classic study, The Rhetoric of Fiction, he says the real-life author is different than the "implied author."  
  • "The implied author is the figure who materializes in the book itself, the man or woman whose personality is implicit in the story and the storytelling. 
  • Suggests reading author interviews in the Paris Review.
  • Remember this: the author is not the narrator
  • First person narrator - Eg. The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe.
  • Third person narrator - Eg. Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Indirect Discourse - Eg. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  Third person narrators borrows language from characters without quotes or identifying tags. 
  • Shift between first and third person - Eg. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • Several first person narrators - Eg. The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. 
  • Questions to ask after page 10:  Is this first or third person?  Why did the author chose this? 
  • Interesting characters are not often the nicest or most likable
  • Interesting characters, even unlikable ones, can grow and change
  • An artful reader will monitor their responses to the characters.  
  • In E.M Forster's book, Aspects of the Novel, he talks about "round" and "flat" characters.  According to him, "the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way."
  • Other things to look out for:  What is the internal conflict or struggle.  What is the crisis?  Is there a reckoning with the past and/or the self? 
  • Short stories by Anton Chekhov
  • Minimalist - Ernest Hemingway
  • Maximilist - William Faulkner
  • Lyricist - F. Scott Fitzgerald
Reading for the Plot - Five Simple Words
  • Beginning: introduced to characters, setting, etc.  Then a destabilizing event
  • Middle: Complications, possibly more destabilizing events, conflicts
  • End:  Resolution - either tragically or comically (sad or happy)
  • Plot: List of events in order of their presentation to the reader
  • Story: Same events in chronological order
  • Exercise - while reading, make a list of events as they occur.  Note which ones are in the past.
Master Plots
  • Hero takes a journey
  • Stranger comes to town
  • Rags to Riches
  • Love conquers all
Chapters: Pattern and Rhythm
  • Pre-read book.
  • Talk time to look at organization of the book.  If there are parts, how many?  How many chapters in each part?  Read the first sentences in the beginning chapters to get a sense of narration and style. Eg.  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and My Antonia by Willa Cather.
  • Suggest to take a break after the first part.  List chapter numbers on a page and next to each chapter note the following:  introduction of main character, change in setting, destabilizing event.  Try to get a feel of the pulse, pattern or rhythm of the book. 
Scene and Summary: Showing and Telling
  • Scenes: mainly dialogue.  Help the reader observe characters directly.
  • Summary: used by narrator to set the scene, bring up to date, generalize, analyze. 
  • Eg. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and Disgrace by J. M Coetzee
Big Scenes: Subtexts, Motives and Secrets
  • Eg. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Look for scenes where the dialogue deepens our insight into the main character, remembering these questions: 
  1. Why does a character enter the scene? What is the reason? 
  2. Does the character know what he/she wants?  What is the real motive?  Do they even know? 
  3. What is the character's main goal?  And is it known to all? Why or why not? 
  4. Good scenes usually involve miscommunication, misunderstanding, and disappointment.  Is this going on? 
  5. The only tool for character in a good scene is language.  What are they saying?  What words are they using?  Why? 
Dialogue: Good, Bad and Ugly
  • Comic dialogue:  character's speech is exaggerated. Eg. Right Ho, Jeeves  by P.G Wodehouse
  • Naturalistic dialogue: spontaneity and immediacy.  Leaves many things unsaid. Eg. of both: White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
  • Bad dialogue - when character makes speeches or monologues, in place of narrator's summary.  Flat, boring, unrealistic.  Eg. The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown.  Prof Langston's speech to the detective upon seeing the dead man sounds like a university lecture.  Unrealistic. 
Picking up the Tools - practical ideas to implement while reading
  • Pre-read - eyeball the entire book to get a sense of the design
  • 50 page test - give the book at least 50 pages before deciding to continue
  • Look out for destabilizing events - usually in the first few pages.
  • What is the master plot?  "Hero Takes A Journey" or "Stranger Comes to Town"?
  • Once a third of the way through, stop and take stock.  Think about the plot and the characters.  Formulate questions.  Make predictions.  Perhaps re-read the first chapter to see if it is different.
  • Close reading - pay attention to the words and language.
  • Take note of passages that are striking in terms of summary, dialogue, description, setting, characterization, showing not telling, etc. 
Suggested Bibliography
  • How Fiction Works by James Wood
  • The Making of A Story by Alice LaPlante
  • Writing Fiction by Burroway and Stuckey-French
  • 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel by Smiley
  • Aspects of the Novel by EM Forster


  1. I like your blog a really lot and am now one of your new followers-I look forward to reading your future posts

  2. Thanks - it means a lot. I've recently found your blog and really like your content. Being part of a book loving community is a good step for me right now. It feels right and based on what I've read, book bloggers seems to be a very open and warm-hearted group. Just what I need!

  3. I'm so sad to learn your reason for reading. Bless your heart.