Sometimes we get so focused on the act of reading that we don’t actually read. We take in words, flip pages, and tick another book off our list, but we didn’t really read that book. But rather, we went through the motions of it and looked at it as a book rather than an opportunity. An opportunity to learn, an opportunity to feel, and an opportunity to escape. This applies to non-fiction as much as fiction, for if you’re skimming through a self-help book, you’ll likely take little from it.
When you read a book, I want you actually to read it. To treat that time as sacred, not only in that you’ll never miss a reading session, but that you’ll be fully present for it. When it’s you and the book, the rest of the world will cease to exist, your phone will stay face down and silent, and you will take in each word.
We live in a world of constant distractions, so it is no wonder that our focus easily slips away. Binge-culture and multitasking have led us to read books like we would a Tweet or Instagram caption. But you can stop this, you can fight the urge to flow through the words without anchor, and instead choose to really read a book. I do this by constantly checking myself, pausing at the end of a page and considering whether I actually know what just happened, whether I skimmed or actually read the descriptions. If I’m unsure, I reread that page, and I keep this cycle up as long as I need it. The second way to achieve this is through consistently questioning yourself, and entering the reading process the way you would research for an essay or class. Some consider this to remove the thrill and lightness of reading, but I see it more as a way to build the reading muscle until you no longer have to ask yourself such questions.
Here are nine questions to consider next time you’re reading a book.
This may seem obvious. Books are often named after their main character, or we’re quickly introduced to them. Nowadays, authors experiment with multiple perspectives or changing the narrator, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to name the main character.
Except that sometimes the main character isn’t who’d you expect. Rather than the person being interviewed, it may actually revolve around the interviewer. Rather than the character that the novel is named after, it may be the one who helps to make the entire plot. The main character is sometimes not even present, but rather the catalyst for the whole story, the driving force throughout it all. This may not be the typical description of a main character, but books don’t always follow these strict briefings.
When you think you know the main character of a story, stop and question it. Try to convince yourself that it is someone else, and see how well you can defend that thought.
I love unreliable narrators. Maybe it’s the author in me, maybe it’s the Psychology student, or maybe it’s the mentally ill side of me, but I love unreliable narrators. When I read a book, I like to question everything they tell me to be true. Often I don’t even think the author intends their narrator to be unreliable, but I simply search for the holes that suggest they could be.
Because all humans are unreliable in how we perceive the world and everything in it. One of the first things I learned in Psychology is that when you’re conducting a study, it will always have a touch of unreliability and bias, because you’re human. The key is to acknowledge it, as only then can you minimise it.
When I read books, I try to take what the narrator tells me with a grain of salt. I like to consider how someone else might experience the same event, how a different character’s own perspective could explain the actions that the narrator judges. I treat the narrator like a suspect in their own story.
Everyone is driven by something in life, whether they realise it or not. Many of us are driven by financial security, others by the desire to be loved, and others by a need to be remembered. We all want something, and most of our days are spent in pursuit of it. Characters are no different, and so it is always worth considering their motives.
Their motives can explain their behaviour or even excuse it. Their motives can cast new light on the theme of the novel or even change it completely. We’re all driven by motive, and by looking for the motives of characters, you may start to notice them in the characters of your own life.
So ask yourself what drives the main character and why they do certain things. Push past the basic reason that they may supply, and instead look deeper than that, and use the information they may lack. But don’t stop with the main character; allow the side characters to receive the same examination and find yourself more easily lost in their world.
This is definitely the writer in me, but I think it is a question all readers should ask and movie watchers too. It’s an excellent activity for your creativity and allows you to develop those mind muscles.
If you were Dickens, Salinger, Picoult or Meyers, what would you do differently? What would you change about this book?
It may be tempting just to paint a happy ending when they don’t, but try to resist this urge and instead think of what would make the best story. Would the story actually end well with the two characters happily coupled, or would this betray the ideals of that character? Should the so-called ‘good guys’ really win, or would it be more realistic to have them lose?
Consider the alternate possibilities for each book and the ways the story could go. It’s the rumblings of every fanfiction, and if you feel inclined, you could even write out your alternate perspective, or at least tell it to a fellow fan. This is a great way to practice storytelling and consider the possibilities present in any situation. But more than that, it can also highlight your priorities and what you’re looking for in a story or in life.
Movie buffs will often watch something and claim it is inspired by Tarantino or Wes Anderson. They’ll see shots and say that this is very Spielberg or another director I can’t even name. I think bookworms should do the same. When we read something, I think we should stop and consider what it reminds us of, whether that’s a similar author or a similar book. But it could even remind us of a film or series, of a time in our own lives, or of someone we know.
This could be in the writing itself, the way they play with prose or heavily rely on description. Or it could be the characters who are reminiscent of your family member or friend. It could be the storyline and the direction it is headed, a path you know too well.
Consider whether the writing reminds you of anything else or just another author. And if it doesn’t? Then it must be pretty unique!
You could take this question at a basic level and say that their intention is to make money. But something that makes money can still be art, and in all honesty, most of our intentions lie there, whether we know it or not.
Instead, push yourself to a deeper level and consider what their intentions are with this specific story. Do they aim to teach you about something? Do they want you to take a perspective often overlooked? Do they want to scare you, humour you, enlighten you, or simply make you feel? Or maybe they want to trick you and later reveal the murderer to have been there all along. Perhaps they intend to highlight the unreliability of their narrator or play with time and space.
We miss so many intentions, and often I think an author doesn’t even realise this is what they’re doing. My manuscripts all have the prevalent theme of mental illness, but I don’t actively intend for this. I write from what I know, and I aim to give truth to something many don’t understand; and in the meantime, I spread awareness about mental illness and provide a personal perspective.
We all intend to do something when we write, and we discover those intentions when we read.
When something fascinates you, it’s worth diving further into that topic. Whether it’s the occupation of the character, the destination they’re exploring or something else. Some books captivate us and ignite a curiosity within us, and if this is the case, you owe yourself to keep that flame burning. Do a simple Google search, or look for a documentary on the subject. Search for more books about that, or even films or series. But allow yourself to become fully immersed in a subject, the way a child wholeheartedly dives into a current obsession.
If you could have dinner with any three authors, do you know which you would choose? It might be the ones who have written your favourite books, or it could be one that simply fascinates you, that led an extraordinary life, and you’d love clarification on something.
I think it is worth considering what you would ask an author, if only to know what you would want to be asked yourself. Taking this mindset causes you to keep questioning, to stay curious about various elements within a book. You question their intentions, their thought process and even how they view a character in comparison to yourself. So next time you read something, stop and wonder what you’d ask them, maybe go as far as to write a list of questions.
You never know who you might run into at an airport, and you’d feel pretty stupid if you didn’t seize that opportunity...
After you’ve reached ‘The End’- although hopefully not in those bland words- it’s time to consider what is next for you. If this book is part of a series, will you continue reading it? Or are you happy to leave it at book one? If the author has written more novels, will you try those next? I love finding an author who has several books released, as it gives me a chance to get to know them better, to begin searching for common themes and threads, as well as little writing tics they may not even realise that they have.
But this doesn’t have to limit yourself to books by the same author; it may be a genre that you wish to explore further or a subject matter. When in doubt, find the book on Goodreads, and look at similar titles. Given their expansive database, they’re pretty good at suggesting alternatives.
Having these questions present in your mind doesn’t have to turn reading into an assignment. You don’t have to stop and question yourself consistently, but instead, they can be an overarching guide, an urge to keep questioning and stay present whilst you read. A book is more than the pages that make it up, and a good story should transcend those pages. So allow yourself to soak everything possible up from this story by questioning what isn’t present, what you would change and what they’re actually up to you. Your answers will differ from someone else’s, and they should! Because your answers are a reflection of you and your experiences, how they have shaped you in a way that no one else could accurately recreate. So take a book in as an individual, rather than just a reader.
Ready to read more? Here are 5 habits that helped me to read 35 books in one year.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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