Review: The Art of Reading

Last night I completed a course on DVD from The Great Courses called “The Art of Reading”. The Four DVD set contains 24 lectures each of about 30 minutes in length. No mail-in evaluations, just lectures designed to be viewed from the privacy of your home. The lecturer was one Dr. Timothy Spurgin, English professor at Lawrence University.

Though I’m not in anyway affiliated with the company that produced this course, Professor Spurgin or Lawrence University, and am not being paid by any of them, I’m officially recommending this course to both those who wish to improve their reading experience, as well as to aspiring fiction writers. Perhaps especially to aspiring fiction writiers.

As the course description that I linked to above notes, there is something here for readers of virtually every level. I didn’t buy the course because I don’t know how fiction works. I read it and write it quite often. Yet when I saw the names of the lectures in the catalog that came to my home earlier this year, I couldn’t help but think that a no pressure exploration and review of the basic components of solid fiction by way of more thoughtful methods of reading it would also illuminate better ways to write it. Three weeks, 24 lectures, and 12 total hours of material later, I can confirm I was right.

Though the lecturer does make mention here and there of how the material may benefit the writer of fiction, you can probably guess that most of the course is dedicated to the reading of it. It’s this focus on reading rather than writing that makes the course so useful to the writer. What do I mean by that irony?

Simply this; by guiding “students” in recognizing signposts and milestones of already established fiction, the course makes one more aware of what goes into a work that has succeeded. Even if one is already familiar with a literary concept, the course lays it out in such a way as to make a reader search for it, as opposed to notice it when it shows up. In so doing, the student becomes more cognizant of both the power and the pleasure in such devices and methods. Since half of writing is reading (as we know), a course on artfully reading already successful fiction makes us aware of what steps we can take to create our own solid fiction, without instructing us directly in “How To Create Your Own Solid Fiction”.

It’s no guarantee of writing a bestseller of course. But unlike the advise you tend to find in writing courses, blogs, lectures and tweets, you don’t come away with “you have to do this to be a writer”. Instead, you explore what a successful writer has done, and delve into why they do it. There’s no formula, but there are tendencies, and the course points out why these literary tendencies are so often effective.

In short, it allows you to learn through observation about good writing, instead of by direct instruction.

Won’t just reading do the same thing? Yes, eventually. And for some that’s enough. But if you’re like me, sometimes a guided tour goes a longer way than a self-paced one, even when I’m familiar with the lay of the land. Living only two hours away, I’ve been to Washington, D.C. many times in my life, and am quite familiar with it. But I would still learn quite a bit more about it if I took a guided tour of the city. The same is true with fiction.

Yet I don’t respond well to being told “here is the one truth”. I bristle when anybody in a non-scientific field, no matter how well-credentialed, demands I accept everything they say as true at face value. Fortunately, Dr. Timothy Spurgin doesn’t do this. He is perhaps not the most exciting or charismatic English professor out there, but he is quick to point out in the course that there’s more than one way to look at a book, an author, a type of fiction. Again, he guides and suggests more than he instructs, and I found that quite effective.

Truth be told, the fact that he is a rather plain, bow tie-wearing guy that can be caught checking the clock as he gives his lectures to the camera on an obvious studio set almost makes the entire experience more rewarding. No frills. No gimmicks. No academic pretense. No attempts to make the course something that it isn’t. Just a guy who knows what the hell he’s talking about sharing some of it with viewers of the DVD. To paraphrase Hamlet, the material’s the thing.

Some of the later lectures do get a bit less interesting, as he dedicates them entirely to light analysis of particular sections of certain classic novels. These lectures were clearly designed to take the general knowledge gleaned from earlier lectures and apply them directly to specific works, which is a good thought. I concede I may have gotten more out of those lectures had I read the works to which he was referring. Still, the slow-down was noticeable to me in some of these later lectures.

Yet they don’t take away from the course as a whole. You may need a few lectures to get into Dr. Spurgin’s delivery which, though engaging may strike you as flat in a way. But give him a chance. He’s not monotonous, he’s just…plain. And that’s okay. You’re supposed to be taking in the material and not the professor.

I happened to get the course when it was on sale for 50 dollars. (Including shipping.) But even if it’s now about 7o dollars, I’d consider it worth any writer’s investment. I understand some public libraries carry it, so you should certainly see if yours does.

Better reading will lead to better writing. I look forward to applying some of the tools from this course to my writing, and I look forward to a more artful reading of the next work of fiction I pick up.

Have you taken this course? If you have, leave a comment to let me know what you thought. Do the same if you take it sometime in the future. I’d like to know what others think.

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