Literacy is one of the most powerful tools we as human beings possess. It is a tool that we utilize on a daily basis, whether autonomically scanning the billboards and advertisements along the subway car or parsing the laden verse of Virgil. But as with any skill, there is always room for improvement. Whether you’re working towards acing your upcoming English exam, or simply want to explore some thicker literature, here are a few tips to sharpen your literary acumen.
Tip #1: Keep your friends close, and a dictionary closer…
The first and most important rule when reading is one that was given to me by an old writing professor of mine from my undergraduate days. This stiff man, with his bushy white hair and rolling British accent, was an author and a scholar, a man who commanded respect with his eloquence and sagacity. Entering his office one crisp autumn day I found him huddled over his desk reading through some monograph or other. A massive tome of a book sat open on a stand in front of him, the lantern’s yellow light catching its gilt edges.
“I never read without my dictionary,” he explained.
A younger me, still nervous having entered the yet foreboding sanctum of a professor, was floored. This man still needs the aid of a dictionary while he reads?! The next logical conclusion, of course, was that I too needed to acquire and keep a dictionary by my side.
That’s the thing about language – there are always new words to learn, different connotations to master, and deeper nuance to parse. By having a dictionary by your side as you read you will expand your understanding, both of the text in question and your language more generally.
Tip #2: There is much ado about everything!
Most all literature, and even many teen novels like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, have been written about ad nauseum. Use this to your advantage! Research texts of interest, or even the book laying undisturbed on your nightstand that was assigned for that school report, and gain deeper insight from knowledgeable sources.
Some texts, like Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise Lost, are not meant for light reading, and scholia (that is, notes about the text) exist to supplement our understanding. Take Canto 26 of the aforementioned Inferno, for example, where our protagonist (Dante) and his guide (Virgil) discover Odysseus and Diomedes, two Greek generals who found fame during the Trojan War. Here in the underworld they have been turned into flames as punishment for deception. Dante, ever the curious adventurer, speaks with Odysseus, who describes his final journey as follows:
Out, then, across the open depths, I put to sea,
a single prow, and with me all my friends –
the little crew that had not yet abandoned me.
I saw both shorelines (one ran on to Spain,
the other to Morocco), Sardinia
and all those islands that our ocean bathes…
where Hercules had once set up his mark –
to warn that men should never pass beyond –
(Dante’s Inferno, trans. Robin Kirkpatrick – Canto 26, lines 100-105, 108-109)
It was on this fateful journey that Odysseus and his men, after five months of travel, crashed on the shore of Mount Purgatory, where they eventually lost their lives. But where were they sailing? Where did Dante believe Purgatory resided? Per the notes, provided by Kirkpatrick, Odysseus and his men passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, which according to Greek mythology were marked by Hercules (“where Hercules had once set up his mark”) as the end of the world (Kirkpatrick 2006, 418). The implication of this is that Odysseus challenged the very order of his world in his attempt to discover the undiscoverable (for more see Kirkpatrick 2006, 412ff.)! This fascinating wrinkle, this added complexity, serves to justify Odysseus’ characterization as a man with untamed curiousity, and validates his position in the Dante’s cosmology. Without this knowledge, we as readers do not fully understand the text.
All of that to say, read about what you are reading! Find reviews for that Shakespeare play, or essays about that dystopian novel. Find a version with an introduction by your favourite author or by an erudite scholar, and learn about what knowledgable people think about your text. This may seem like a lot of extra work, and it certainly can be, but it will be well worth it.
Tip #3: No student is an island.
Learning is a social exercise, and we are social creatures. The next step on your reading journey should be to find others and talk about what you are reading! Much like it is important to read the thoughts of scholars, it is also important to share and hone your ideas with the people around you. There is no better way to test and consolidate your understanding of a book than by talking about it.
Tip #4: Keep reading!
This one is self-explanatory. Like any muscle, you have to use it, lest it atrophy and stagnate. The more you read, the better you will be at it.
With these four tips in the back of your mind, you will be well-prepared to tackle any piece of literature. Happy reading!
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy I: Inferno. Trans. and Ed. Robin Kirkpatrick. England: Penguin Books, 2006.