Thursday, May 6, 2010

How to read a book: Context

Reading thuRsday

I began with the title, "How to read a book." But as I thought about it, I realized there's no way I can do justice to the subject in anything less than a hundred posts. Even qualified, the topic is probably overly ambitious. Given, however, that my ambition knows no bounds, that's not much of a problem.

When I was in graduate school, I took a course on ante-bellum* social history. At our first meeting, the professor greeted the class and then told us he hoped that during the course of the semester we would learn how to read.

Remember, this was graduate school. I'd already amassed a substantial collection of books, a degree, and debt. Surely all of that was proof I knew how to read. I was, as you probably suspect, a bit miffed. But I'd also been at school long enough to know that one often needs patience when dealing with professors.

True to his word, the professor did teach us how to read. Specifically, how to read critically. Each week we worked on a different book. And each week the professor would begin the discussion by asking, "So how do we get out from under this book?"

We were, of course, dealing with academic non-fiction, so I will simply summarize the techniques: it all came down to context.

We asked questions like, "Who is the author? Where were they? When did they write? What else was happening when they wrote?"

For instance, we read a book about the anti-abolition riots during 1830-1840 that was written during the civil-rights riots of the late 60s and early 70s. Not a coincidence.

So what does this mean for fiction?

Looking at both the internal and external context can help us.

Internal context includes everything from a sensible plot to a sensible back story and a sufficiently fleshed-out setting. External context includes evidence, or at least guesses, as to what the author may have been responding to when they wrote the story.

* Ante-bellum means "before the America Civil War" for all you non-history geeks.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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