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Critical Reading: The First Date

Thursday, November 15, 2007

If reading the back cover and ruminating on everything you can learn about the book is like meeting someone new, reading the first chapter is like your first date. You’re not going to learn everything, but you’ll come away from it with a really good sense of whether or not you want to know more.

And I have to say, y’all are really lucky you’re getting this lesson from me. I picked up John Sutherland’s book How to Read a Novel at the library today and had to skim all the way through to chapter twelve before he gets around to talking about first lines! (As an aside, the image on the front cover is of an open book with, you guessed it, Post-its sticking out of it!)

Okay, so you’re ready for your first date with your chosen novel. You have your pens and Post-its and notepad. You’ve set your goal for what you want to read, and you’ve answered yesterday’s questions.

Chapter Titles.
After waiting nearly five hours at Barnes & Noble, when I got home with my midnight-edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I averted my gaze as I turned past the table of contents. Why? Because J.K. Rowling has a bad habit of revealing too much in her chapter titles. So, that’s something to consider when you pick up the book to read.

  • Is there a chapter title? Does the chapter title reveal or hint at what’s going to happen?
  • Is there an epigram/quote? Once you’ve read the entire chapter, does the quote fit what happened?

What’s the First Line?
Remember back a while ago when we had a brief discussion of First Lines? Now might be a good time to review that post to recall what Don Maass, Sol Stein, and Nancy Kress had to say about composing first lines. I also give a couple of examples there of how to break down a first line to see what can be learned from it.

What does the First Line really say?
If you’re a wine drinker, you know that you don’t just guzzle the whole glass down at once. The sommelier pours a tiny bit into the glass. The connoisseur swirls it, raises it to the light to see the color, smells it, then takes it into his mouth. Once in his mouth, he makes sure the liquid touches each area of his tongue, since different parts of the tongue are responsible for sweet, sour, salty, spicy, etc. He may open his mouth slightly and breathe in, which will allow the aroma to reenter his nasal passages, giving him a different experience of the bouquet (since smell is at least 50% of taste). Then he swallows it—all before the full glass of wine is served. This is how you want to treat the opening lines of a book you’re reading critically.

Read the first chapter. Just the first chapter (oh, okay, the prologue, too, if there is one). This is where you will need your notebook.

  • Does the opening page grab your attention and make you want to keep reading? If not, is there something within the next two pages that would have made a better opening? Does the book start slowly with lots of description, or does it open in media res—in the middle of something happening? 
  • What’s the setting? (Location, time period, time of year, etc.) On what page is the physical setting first mentioned? Does it feel real to you? What do you learn about the setting?
  • Point of View. What Person/tense has the author chosen? Does POV feel tight and deep? Do you like the author’s choice of POV? Who is/are the POV character(s)?
  • Characters. Start a list of POV/Main and secondary characters (keeping in mind not all of the POV characters will have a POV in the first chapter). When do you learn the main character’s name? When is the main character physically described for the first time? Do you like the main character? What is revealed about them in the first chapter? What can you surmise about the character’s past and about their personality from the first chapter?
  • What kind of tone has the author set on the first page? (Exciting, funny, suspenseful, light, ominous, etc.) Does that match the expectation you had from reading the back blurb?
  • Is there any backstory in the first chapter—more than just a hint of something that might have happened?
  • Is there a hook at the end of the first chapter that makes you want to read more?

Virginia Woolfe wrote in 1926: “The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading, is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.” We’re just getting started with this series and I’ve already posted tons of questions to ask—and we’re barely through the first chapter. I know that just with these two posts, you’re probably ready to give up on critical reading already. But this is why you really need to set a specific goal. If you’re not interested in POV, don’t bother analyzing the book’s POV (but do identify what it is, just for the practice). What I’ll be giving you throughout the course of this series is a set of questions that will give you the most in-depth critical reading experience possible. Some of it will be important to you, a lot of it won’t. Think of this series like a giant Sam’s-size bag of M&Ms . . . if you only want the blue ones, that’s quite all right.

7 Comments
  1. Thursday, November 15, 2007 8:34 am

    Is that how you’re supposed to drink wine? Obviously I’m not a connoisseur. Great analogy, and the first date analogy too. Chapter titles bug me because I’d rather be surprised by what’s in the chapter than have a hint. I think I really have to choose the book I want to analyze very carefully because it looks like we’ll spend lots of time together.

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  2. Thursday, November 15, 2007 9:20 am

    That’s assuming one is enough of a connoisseur to go to a place that actually has a sommelier. For me, drinking wine is very much like reading for enjoyment. I think about whether or not it tastes good and that’s about it!

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  3. Thursday, November 15, 2007 11:33 am

    I think I’m going to need to print out this series of blogs and have it handy when I read critically, at least until I am confident I have things down the way I want them to be. There’s so much good stuff here, I’d never remember it all off the top of my head.

    And I love blue M&M’s…though come to think of it…I love them all…

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  4. Carol Collett permalink
    Thursday, November 15, 2007 7:01 pm

    I think I need to choose a short book to start out or this could take a very long time. I’m excited to see how much my writing will benefit from learning to read critically.
    Kaye, maybe your next series should be on figures of speech-you do analogies great!

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  5. Thursday, November 15, 2007 7:51 pm

    Thanks Carol! I think it comes from having spent two or three years teaching 7th and 8th grade Sunday School. I was always looking for ways I could help them understand big concepts in a concrete way. I guess it just stuck with me because I can’t help but use them when I’m teaching now!

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