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)
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.
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.
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 (: