Great Courses: The Art Of Reading, by Professor Timothy Spurgin
As someone who is fond of the Great Courses collection , this audiobook was quite a striking one. Those people who saw me with this audiobook pondered why someone who reads as much as I do would want to read a book on the art of reading. Obviously, I know how to read, and read well. What does someone who reads and reads well get out of a book like this? Well, this book is all about artful reading, the sort of reading one can do in a rewarding fashion for classic literature. The instructor shows that he is not a snob in praising good genre fiction (like the Sherlock Holmes detective stories) as well as in his last lecture when he tries to clear up any misunderstandings the listener of this course will have, but the general assumption of the professor is that one engages in extractive reading when one reads nonfiction but can use artful reading to make the reading of literature more enjoyable in a complex fashion. The instructor appears ignorant, though, of the fact that there is a considerable variation among nonfiction, where some nonfiction, very good nonfiction, can be read in a very artful fashion with profitability, but where other nonfiction is not profitable to read artfully at all. The author’s own reading appears to have avoided the more artful types of nonfiction reading, though, unfortunately.
That said, one of the most impressive aspects of this particular course is the way it is structured and paced. Overall there are twenty four lectures over twelve discs, and each of the lectures itself has a clear flow and structure that follows a strong focus on beginning, middle, and end. That said, there is also a clear focus on a good structure overall for the class as well. The instructor begins by comparing artful reading and everyday reading, then moves into questions of the real and implied author as well as the narrators, and then goes on to discuss characters and their dimensions and descriptions of people, places, and things. Then different kinds of writing are explored, from minimalists to maximalists to lyricists, before the author discusses irony and ambiguity and plots. The discussion of plots involves the three act structure of a story as well as master plots (namely the stranger and the journey) and the importance of plots to mysteries (specifically the Sherlock Holmes stories), the thickening of the plot in Scott and Bronte and the vanishing of plot in Faulkner and Woolf. After this the professor moves on to areas of chapters, patterns, and rhythms, to scene and summary, and to close reading in order to gain an understanding of subtexts, motives, and secrets. The instructor then discusses dialogue, metafiction, and adaptation in an attempt to understand what makes fiction and fiction about fiction so important, and what makes books better than film adaptations. The instructor’s comments on four types of realism courtesy of C.S. Lewis’ literary criticism and expansions from that follows, and then the instructor moves into the home stretch by talking about interpretation and evaluation before giving a case study in three lectures on a long short story (“Runaway”), a classic novel (“The Age of Innocence”) and a massive novel (“War And Peace”) before ending with an encouragement to readers to use tools like pre-reading, close reading, and various outlining schemes to become better readers.
What benefit does someone get out of this course if they already read at an expert level? Many of the techniques utilized by the instructor and encouraged for listeners are techniques that will either be known implicitly by intuitive readers used to close reading or those who read and review books on a regular basis. Nevertheless, even where this information is implicitly known, there can be a benefit in viewing matters explicitly as well, and putting one’s reading techniques under close scrutiny, to know what one knows and to openly acknowledge it and reflect on it. Also, this book is good at providing varied case studies for excellent literature to read. It has certainly encouraged me to read a few books I would not have made a very high priority among literary fiction, particularly the choices for metafiction and some of the modernist or contemporary fiction I do not tend to pay close attention to. The professor is a big fan of Jane Austen, and Persuasion and Sense & Sensibility appear a few times in this book to the general pleasure of the student who happens to be as fond of her writing as I am. So, if you are a fan of the “Great Books” and want to know if you rank as an elite reader or want to know what sort of techniques you may be using without even knowing it, this is a good course to take, and at twelve hours it does not present a great burden upon the listener while providing a great deal of enjoyment in listening to a discussion on good books.
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