The Pros & Cons of Critical Reading

In the book community, we talk about a lot of things: books, tropes, authors, genres, etc. But, whether book bloggers or book vloggers are your thing, we don’t often talk about critical reading. I think that this is because, primarily, when you’re rating and reviewing books, it seems kind of insinuated that you read the book critically. No need to really talk about it, right?

Here’s the thing: before reviewing, I never read critically. I didn’t even know what that meant as far as my personal reading went. Sure, my English teachers over the years taught us to try to read classical literature critically, to see the things you can’t see on the surface, but I didn’t apply that to my reading outside of school as a teenager. Once I found the online presence of the book community, it took a lot of honing my own personal tastes and realizing what I liked or didn’t like in books to get to the stage of critical reading I’m at now. And in the sense of reading to review, I’m happy with that.

But I also feel like there is a lot less opportunity for pure enjoyment in books when it comes to this. I personally find that some of my favorite reads are the hardest to write because I wasn’t focused on reading critically; I was just enjoying the book.

I’ve thought a lot about this topic since I first started writing reviews, and although I haven’t seen anyone talking about it (which is not to say that no one has, just that I haven’t seen it myself), I know that other readers must’ve thought about it a time or two as well. So, I decided to write this post to go over the pros & cons of critical reading: why it helps, and why it doesn’t. Let’s get started.


“Critical reading means that a reader applies certain processes, models, questions, and theories that result in enhanced clarity and comprehension.” -Writing Center, Cleveland State University (https://www.csuohio.edu/writing-center/critical-reading-what-critical-reading-and-why-do-i-need-do-it)

Pros

Critical reading helps you see beyond the plot. Before I read critically, I enjoyed almost every single book I read. Did that mean that every single one of them was well written, paced nicely, and with fully developed characters? Not at all. In fact, I’ve reread several books that I used to love and have found them significantly less enjoyable now that I don’t just focus on the plot.

It helps with your own writing. Once you know what works in books, for you and for other readers/reviewers, you can apply that to your own writing. My own work in progress started out as a very small idea almost 2 years ago. I’ve been working on it extensively in the past few weeks and have completely changed so much of it that it has honestly become an entirely different story. I’ve applied what I’ve learned from my own critical reading -and from other reviewers- to my own writing and it has really improved it.

It allows you to see problematic content for what it is. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with seeing beyond the plot. While the book community is one of the most accepting, diverse, welcoming, and unafraid to call out bs in books, some problematic material may still go unnoticed if you aren’t much of a critical reader. Things like: lack of diversity*, slut shaming*, homophobic/transphobic/biphobic content*, racist remarks*, harmful remarks made against mental illness*, misogynistic content*, & harmful remarks made against disabilities* are all extremely inappropriate.

*In this context, I am referring to the things on this list being present in books when the plot is not dependent on them. Some books include these types of content in order to confront them, call them out, and to tackle the issues surrounding them (ie The Hate U Give, If I Was Your Girl, All the Bright Places).

It makes you a more thorough reviewer. Of course, I can’t forget this pro, right? This is not to say that it makes you a better reviewer, because I think everyone has their own ways of reviewing and they can be great regardless. Instead I mean that when you are a critical reader, your reviews tend to gear towards including constructive criticism (like mine), precise reasons for liking/disliking a book, and insight into the build of characters, relationships, pacing, etc.

Cons

Books aren’t always as enjoyable as they could be. I speak personally, of course, but I sometimes find myself realizing how much more I might like a book if I wasn’t reading it critically. By this I mean that I am often making notes of what worked and what didn’t, so I don’t get to get as lost in the book & story as I might want to.

It makes reading feel like more work. Once again, this is a personal thing, but sometimes you just want to read and not put too much extra effort in. Knowing that my brain has gotten used to over-analyzing what I’ll be reading sometimes deters me from even reading at all. It can ruin my reading mood easily.

It can isolate you from the book. Reading critically sometimes makes me feel less connected to the characters or the plot. It ties in with being unable to get lost in the story, and as a reader who loves to read because I like getting lost in a story, it always makes me sad when I notice that I’m not fully connecting with it because I’m taking so many mental notes about a lack of proper character development or whatnot.

Personal thoughts

I think that there are both positive and negative aspects to being a critical reader. Maybe I overthink it a little, but I acknowledge both the pros and the cons, and I know that while it helps me in some areas, it hinders me in others. Will I stop reading critically? No. But I am going to try to allow myself to just read more.

I want to be able to recognize what’s wrong in a book without being unable to enjoy the parts that are good in it. I want to be able to get lost in a book and not always worry about how to review it! The joys of being a reader are great, and I think we should be able to embrace them while still being able to read critically when needed or when it’s time for it. I think I need to find a way to balance this, as my brain has gotten too used to only critically reading. It makes even the best reading experiences seem less than perfect, and I want to change that.

 

What are your thoughts on critical reading? Do you ever find it stressful, or do you find it helps you with your reads? Talk to me (:

21 thoughts on “The Pros & Cons of Critical Reading

  1. Great points on critical reading. I find that novels are less enjoyable if I critical read. True, I get plenty of ideas on how my own writing could improve, but the fun of just reading is lost. That’s why I took a whole weekend and just enjoyed my media.

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  2. I personally haven’t tried active critical reading lately (at least that’s what I feel) because of your con list. BUT, i feel like when I read a book that does have some jarring problematic content, that’s when the critical side starts to come out, and that’s a whole different post for me to write. I love this though, and I want to try to critically read a lot more. It may feel like work, but it’s worth it.

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    1. I feel like it’s almost impossible to not start reading critically once a book gets inappropriate or problematic! It can change all of the potential that the book had. As for reading critically, it definitely is a lot of work, and it comes with both advantages and disadvantages, so only do it when you feel up to it!! It definitely changes the reading experience!

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  3. As an author (much older than you) and trying to learn from the great masters who came before me, I can’t help but read critically. For instance, I’m reading a historical fiction novel by a New York Times Best-Selling Author, and I am immediately cognizant that this guy knows his history, it’s entertaining, but he is not a master of prose. This gives me hope because neither am I. Nonetheless if I start a book, I know within twenty pages if this is a writer who deserves my attention. If not, I’m on to the next thing. At my stage in life, I don’t have time to entertain reads from start to finish which are not of the highest quality. If I encounter a sentence like this: “I’ve been working on it extensively in the past few weeks and have completely changed so much of it that’s it honestly become an entirely different story,” I immediately abandon the book as the work of an amateur. My apologies, Brittany. You know I follow your blog, but proofread everything carefully before you publish. All the best, Ted

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    1. I’ve tried to master the skill of putting a book down that doesn’t fully work for me, but I struggle with it quite a bit, largely because as a reviewer, I feel like I should stick it out to fully give it a chance. However, I definitely understand you not forcing yourself to read through books that lack. It’s something I’m trying to work towards being able to do as well! I have the awful curse of being unable to put something down until I’ve finished it, even if it takes me an abnormally long time! As for your comment on my error, that’s OK! No hard feelings at all. I actually would rather someone tell me that I made a mistake so that I can fix it. I do proofread, but mishaps certainly happen.

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  4. I find it fascinating to be able to see beyond the plot and be able to identify aspects that are not visible at first. But the hard work that thorough critical reading requires might be too much for me, as I read books as a hobby.

    However, I noticed that blogging about the books I read helped me think more critically about them. That’s one of the reasons I continued blogging – writing about the book gives me a deeper understanding of the book compared to the experience of only reading it.

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    1. I completely agree! I love being able to see things that aren’t on the surface, but also kind of dislike how much it can ruin a enjoyable read if I’m TOO focused on what’s below the surface… if that makes sense. And I definitely agree about the blogging thing as well! When you’re writing a blog post, you end up thinking more deeply about the book than you might have otherwise.

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  5. I definitely agree with a lot of these things! I definitely noticed my change in reading when a lot of the manga I used to enjoy started falling flat for me. Series I loved and adored before suddenly seemed less enjoyable and I found myself rating them lower compared to when I first read them.
    However, I’m so grateful for becoming a critical reader because without becoming a critical reader, I wouldn’t have started to pay attention to my mental health when I read like I do now. I also wouldn’t be more conscious of reading burnout like I am now. I think once you hit a certain point in critical reading, you can start to see how books impact you for better or worse and I think it makes a huge difference for many readers. I also think critical reading allows us to bond with other readers a little bit better too. Having an in depth conversation with fellow readers in the community can help you find those who have similar reading taste and allow yourself to have hour long conversations of a book you might not often be able to find. So I definitely think there are even bigger positives to critical reading that not many realize.

    Critical reading has also made me hold off on reading certain books too. When I read and review a book, I’m constantly aware of content/trigger warnings and whenever I see someone say a had really problematic material or if I see someone really hyping a book, I really slam on the breaks before I dive into that book. With being such a critical reader, one of my biggest thoughts is “Oh no, am I actually going to get something out of this book or is this going to be another book that comes up short?” It’s constantly in the back of my head and there’s some many books I see readers falling in love with or hating that I own and haven’t read yet that has put me in the spot of setting them off to the side to pretend they don’t exist.

    I definitely think critical reading has a lot of pros and cons, but I also think in the end it really does help us define our reading tastes and help us grow as readers. I also think it opens many doors for us to bond and connect with fellow readers, and bring to light health discussions about problematic material or address content/trigger warnings more. Even more so, to do all of these things for readers who aren’t at a level of critical reading. It allows us to paint a path for them to start thinking about what they want out of reading or navigate the type of reading they want to partake in. It’s one full cycle and what critical readers/reviewers do gets poured back into the community for a whole new wave of critical readers to surface. It’s remarkable and I think critical readers/reviewers deserve a little more credit and should be proud of the things that they do for the community. ❤️

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    1. Thank you SO much for adding these insights! I have to admit that I’d never even thought of how critical reading has helped me identify books that are good or bad for me & my mental health, but reading your thoughts made me realize that it definitely has. Critical reading has definitely helped me figure out my tastes and what type of books I like, what types of books trigger me mentally, and what types of books will probably fall short for me. I’ve found myself putting several reads off as well for similar reasons to the ones you listed here. I do think that, most of the time, the positive aspects of critical reading outweigh the negatives. Generally, the only time I feel otherwise is when I catch myself paying less attention to how much I enjoy a book and more attention to my critiques of it. I think critical readers make absolutely great reviewers because we can all see beyond “this book was fun/nice/good” and say WHY it was fun/nice/good. Thanks again for such a thoughtful, well written comment!

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      1. I definitely agree. One thing I’ve really started to noticed in critical readers/reviews is they talk about how it was affecting their mental health. I think that’s such a huge thing because so many people inside and outside of reading might put their mental health on the back burner, but in these past couple years there have been great spikes of people realizing how things they read, watch, engage themselves in impact their mental health. And for myself, when I review a book, I’ve had readers message me and say thank you for the content and trigger warnings because it allowed them to prepare or go in being aware of that content. It just really shows the positivity of critical reading/reviewing and hearing other talk about how critical reading/reviewing has changed them for the better is such a great way for everyone to share their experiences.

        I for one am very glad someone finally opened up the floor to truly talk and discuss how critical reading/reviewing has impacted them or changed their reading style. I love these type of topics where the community can come together and openly talk about their experiences. So thank you for writing this blog post! ❤️

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      2. I 100% agree about how people have really started to pay attention to how the things they read, watch, interact with, engage in, etc. have been affecting their mental health. I’m so glad, too! I’m also really glad that trigger and content warnings are becoming more normalized. I do wish that more publishers were willing to put them in the books themselves, so that readers know what they are getting into before they buy or read it, but hopefully that change will come as well! Thank you for discussing this further with me because I’m always really curious about how other readers/reviewers feel about these types of topics! I think they are important to talk about and discuss!

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      3. I definitely agree! I am glad that there are some authors out there who do make announcements or list in their books about the content and trigger warnings, but I definitely wish more would be willing to talk about them or list them in advance for readers. Hopefully within time we’ll start to see more changes and we’ll see more authors and publishers stepping up and stating them in the future.
        And absolutely! I love discussing these topics because I think they’re super important and the amount of feedback given from so many different people in the community is fantastic! I’m always here for hard hitting topics and things that aren’t often discussed!

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      4. I think that authors are becoming a lot more conscientious about their readers and what the book community wants to see from them in regards to trigger and content warnings, so I think that maybe in the near future we can expect to start seeing them in the beginning of more and more books! That’s my hope, anyways. Also, I love that you’re willing to talk about the hard topics and the stuff that is important! Sometimes some topics are easier to just avoid talking about, but as long as there’s someone willing to start the conversations, there will always be room for improvement on any issues!!

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      5. You’re probably right! I really do we start to see an increase though! Not just for us, but for future readers and the next generation of readers. And thank you! I love talking about the hard topics because it shouldn’t be classified as taboo to talk about these things in the book community. These topics are messy, hard to bring up or address, but they’re so important and we need more people who are willing to stand up and say “Hey, let’s talk about this and our thoughts!” It may be uncomfortable, but when we finally reach a point where it isn’t as awkward or hard to discuss – we will finally start reaching new heights of communication, understanding, and a point of acceptance that talking about these topics can benefit everyone!

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  6. I feel like I don’t read critically, like ever? Like, whenever something inherently problematic comes up in a book warning bells start going off in my head and I start to pay more attention, but I still don’t think I read critically? I am just very bad at doing it lol. I tried, like a lot, in my AP Literature class but I didn’t succeed in the slightest. Oddly enough, I can critically read and analyze poetry very easily, but prose is a no go for me. This was such an interesting post! I loved hearing the thoughts of someone who does critically read as someone who definitely doesn’t lol.

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    1. I think problematic content can definitely get even the most non-critical readers feeling a bit critical, lol! I think books are easier to enjoy if there’s not much critical reading involved! Maybe that’s why so many people hate poetry? Because they don’t like to analyze it?? 😂😂 I just realized that.

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