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When In The Reading Process Is It Best To Know About The Author?

A photograph of Daphne du Maurier surrounded by journalists

This 1947 photograph of Daphne Du Maurier is from the International Institute of Social History.

Spinning off from something I spoke about on Monday, I thought I’d look at the ‘methods’ of reading I questioned. They were:

Is it better to read the book and then find out about the author?
Is it better to find out about the author and then read the book?
Is a mix of reading and research the best way?

Each method will create different thoughts, and highlight different aspects of the book due to the added or lesser background information you have at that time.

I find working on a per-book basis best. However, I’m not sure I should say it’s always the case; there are enough occasions where the preferred method of doing something changes over time. (The ‘how’ of reading sounds like it should be an easy description, but it’s not. I think that’s interesting in itself.)

So then, is it better to read the book first and then find out about the author? Doing this will provide context and meaning after you’ve read the book. It’s the most likely method to induce those ‘aha!’ moments, where you learn something new about something you thought you understood, or you learn something new about something you did indeed understand. However, reading by this method means you’ll probably miss the little things, things so small you wouldn’t think to jot them down – words, short sentences, that might have been funny if read in context. Note taking is important in this method, particularly if the book is long and/or complex – it helps you remember the little things, but again, it won’t help you if you don’t realise that something should be noted for later research.

Is it better therefore to find out about the author and only then read the book? Doing this means you can read the book in context in real time, and all the little things you might have missed will be shown. The downside is there will potentially be a lot to keep in mind from the start; invariably you might still miss things. But also, you risk applying aspects of the author’s life and thoughts to the story that may not be relevant. (I’m thinking here of the oft-debated concept of judging a book by its author and how much we ‘should’ allow the author’s worldview to impact our reading of their books.)

So, is concurrent reading and research the best way? This will naturally slow you down as you move between book and references, but it is surely the richest choice in terms of literary enjoyment, reading for study purposes whatever that study may comprise of. By being so close, in terms of time and literal space, to both the text and the meanings behind it, you’ll learn the most. A word confuses you? The answer is right there. As such, this is not the way to read if you just want escapism; for all its studious pleasures, it can become dull, grating, as at some point you’ll almost certainly want to forget research and just read the book. You also have to be near research material, which could lead to further distractions.

And what’s the impact if you can’t find any/only a little information about the author? That in itself may be a point, like Elena Ferrante and the possible difference caused to readings of her book – those who read them before she was unmasked, and those who read them afterwards. If, however, it’s simply a case of a lesser-known writer, you do have to just read the book without knowledge of them, and this effectively forces your hand in regards to further research. In this way, the only context in which to read the book is in the context of the genre or the author’s other books. Perhaps the authors’ thoughts and background are included in the book; one could presume that any themes or aspects that are dwelt upon at length might be of importance to the author, but then again they may not be. It’s an interesting topic to consider.

I find myself choosing between the three methods by genre and popularity. When the book is a classic or otherwise older book, the reading and research tend to happen at the same time. I generally limit myself to research that seems too important to ignore because I do still like to read classics without spoilers. When the author is very famous and more modern, the author information is most often learned early on, by everyone; if I’m not in the know I’ll tend to read about them first because it can help. A lesser-known book, especially modern, will be read before any research.

How do you read in this context, and has it changed over time?


Tracy Terry

June 21, 2019, 3:45 pm

Hmm! Interesting.

I can’t say for me there is any better (or worse) when it comes to the questions you posed though of the three I guess I’d go with a mix of reading and research as being the ‘better’ way.

Laurie @ RelevantObscurity

June 24, 2019, 7:05 pm

Over the years I have settled on reading the book first then reading up on the author or criticism of the book.

Many of the classics I read have introductions from scholars, which are always beneficial to the understanding of the book, but I like the idea of self-discovery without bias. Then I will go back and read the intro.


July 8, 2019, 11:40 am

Tracy Terry: That’s true, better and worse is both relative to the situation and subjective in general.

Laurie: Criticism of the book itself is important, too. Good point. I’m the same with introductions. I find more value in them than I used to, but they’re better read afterwards if you want a blank slate experience.



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