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Reading Without Studying

A photograph of the library at The Vyne - historical books in a historical context

There are many people, I reckon, who would read this title and think ‘it’s good to just read and not study texts’. This is part of what I want to discuss today.

As a school student (in the years that set you up for university study) I thought that completely. One should just read and enjoy a book, in fact it would ruin the book to study it. And did the author write the book for it to be studied? Likely not. There has been at least one author in the past who has been annoyed that their book would be used in a studious environment.

I can’t say I fully disagree with this even now the way I approach literature has changed. I think it’s important that we’re ‘able’ to read any book just for enjoyment, just for the pleasure of reading, without dealing with anything that isn’t right on the surface. Sometimes, though I value the way I read now, I wonder what it would be like to read Rebecca without considering the way she lacks an identity. I can’t imagine what it would be like – in this example at least, because I think the theme of identity is so important – but the idea is fascinating. And despite a lack of literary thought, I think such readers’ opinions would make a refreshing change in a world where themes are studied to death.

I’m not sure I could ever go back to reading without thought to the studious side of it. Not because I don’t want to – I’d like the choice – but because it’s ingrained. For something I never gave two hoots about in my teenage years it’s become an intrinsic part of who I am as a reader.

So I think both ways of reading have value but as someone who does look at themes, characterisation and so on, I see reading with an eye to all that as important. I know that a lot can be missed if you don’t look deeper into the text, and albeit some of what you learn might have been manufactured by overzealous professors – that ‘how do you really know that’s what the author was trying to do, Sir?’ still rings true – most of it has been written in deliberately. It would be difficult to read Lucy Snowe’s extreme hatred for Catholicism without the context of Charlotte Brontë’s upbringing. I think a person would be frustrated with it either way, but it’s possibly easier to read in context and makes a lot more sense. It would be hard, I think, to really enjoy The Great Gatsby without thought of the American dream and the society of the time; it would be quite a mundane book without it. I’m trying to keep references to a minimum and stick to classics, but I think even modern books like The Hunger Games could be considered similarly.

(Of course there are also works by, for example, Shakespeare and Chaucer, that don’t work so well without knowledge of the historical contexts and language of the time. You could potentially read them, but they might not make much sense and certainly the language would be difficult.)

I suppose I see reading purely for pleasure and only on the surface to be great, and goodness knows it’s a lot easier to read when you’re doing that. I see reading with a view to study, however the study is conducted – for the reader alone or for school or in order to write an article – as a step up, so to speak. Not required but of great value if it’s of interest. I know from my younger years that interest is key.

What do you think about this subject?


jenn aka the picky girl

August 14, 2015, 2:24 am

Yes, difficult to separate. That said, reading to teach a text adds an additional layer. And that – that I don’t want to do all the time. Nor do I. But I’ve been doing so much of it lately, and I always forget how time consuming it is, not to mention the research on top of that to present different approaches to students as well.

When I want a pleasure-only read, I switch to cozy mysteries. There’s nothing deeper! I love it!

Elizabeth the Evil Overlord

August 14, 2015, 2:34 am

Before retiring last year I taught English for 25 years to students 9-12. My goal was to create life-long lovers of reading because I knew it was almost too late.
I was the student who loved to read but didn’t want to over analyze. I liked looking at the depth of characters and importance of setting, but discussing the symbolism of a creek that gets mentioned twice wore me out.
Now that I am reviewing books I feel like I have a good balance of reading for enjoyment and study both. I don’t just fly through the plot as I did in the past, or pick through everything, as I did with things I was teaching. I take notes on what I notice as themes and use stickies to go back to things I thought might be important later. This makes me better able to discuss the book.

Tracy Terry

August 14, 2015, 1:33 pm

Hmm, interesting.

For me there are those books just meant for pure pleasure, no real thought needed. Then there are those thought provoking reads that I find myself analysing to one degree or another. It is only very rarely now that I find myself having to really study a book.

April Munday

August 14, 2015, 8:15 pm

When I was reading for study, and I didn’t read English literature, I read French, I always used to think to myself that the authors couldn’t possibly have purposely included all those ‘hidden’ themes. Now that I write myself (even though it’s hardly literature) I can see my own themes coming out. Some of them surprise me, but they’re consistent.

I think a lot of what writers do that is revealed when you study their works is initially unconscious, but becomes clearer to them as they write.

I read “The Beautiful and the Damned” earlier in the year and I agree with your comment about “The Great Gatsby”. The American Dream and its ultimate emptiness is something that must have occupied a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s thinking.


August 16, 2015, 2:46 pm

I agree with you, both is good and some books require a deeper reading. I like to read and think about a book, but sometimes I just need something I can enjoy without thinking.



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