In my previous post, I outlined the rules for analytical reading of expository literature that Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren give in their book, “How to Read a Book.” In this post, I will outline the rules that they give for analytical reading of imaginative literature. Imaginative literature encompasses some of “easiest” (e.g. novels) and “hardest” (e.g. epic poems) literature to read. I put those descriptors in quotes because the genres assumed “easy” are often harder than they appear, and the ones assumed “hard” are often easier than they appear. Without further ado, here are the rules:
How not to read imaginative literature.
Rule 1: Know the difference between expository and imaginative literature. Expository try to convey knowledge about experiences that the reader has had or could have, imaginative books try to communicate an experience itself.
Rule 2: Don’t try to resist the effect that a work of imaginative literature has on you.
Rule 3: Don’t look for terms, propositions, and arguments in imaginative literature.
Rule 4: Don’t criticize fiction by the standards of truth and consistency that properly apply to communication of knowledge.
How to read imaginative literature.
Rule 1: Classify a work of imaginative literature according to its kind (e.g. lyric, novel, poem, ballad, play, etc.)
Rule 2: Grasp the unity of the whole book, the unity of a story is always in its plot.
Rule 3: Discover how the unity of the whole is constructed out of all its parts; identify the details of characterization and incident.
Rule 4: Come to terms with how the author uses each element of the book to tell his story.
Rule 5: Be at home in the authors imaginary world; know it as if you were an observer on the scene; become a member of its population.
Rule 6: Follow the characters through their adventures being sensitive to the heartbeat of the narrative as if you had your finger on its pulse.
Rule 7: Don’t criticize imaginative writing until you fully appreciate what the author has tried to make you experience.
Rule 8: Don’t question the world the author creates.
Rule 9: When criticizing a work of imaginative literature the chief concern is beauty, not truth. The two are unquestionably linked, but must still be distinguished.
These aforestated rules apply most directly to the reading of novels and plays, yet have applications for other kinds of imaginative literature. To help the reader further, here are some specific applications of these rules to two different genres of imaginative literature:
How to Read a Story
Rule 1: Read it quickly and with total immersion.
Rule 2: Become acquainted with its characters and incidents.
Rule 3: Determine which characters and incidents are important.
Rule 4: Finish reading the story.
Rule 5: When criticizing a story, be careful to distinguish books that satisfy your own particular needs (e.g. ones that simply have a character that you can relate to) from those that satisfy the deep unconscious needs of almost everyone.
How to Read a Poem
Rule 1: Read the poem through without stopping, whether you think you understand it or not.
Rule 2: Read the poem through again out loud.
Rule 3: Ask questions of the poem. For example, discover the key words and ask why they stand out, is it because of the rhyme scheme? The meter? Their juxtaposition with other words? Their repetition? Their scarcity? Etc.
Rule 4: Don’t doubt your ability to read and understand the poem, almost everyone can read any poem, if he will go to work on it.