Are we passive or active readers?

As autumn arrives, and children get back to school, so I prepare to return to my day job.  In case you haven’t realised, I tutor classes for adults, leading reading and writing groups.

Are writing sessions self-explanatory?  I never take it for granted, but I thought so, until someone arrived at Creative Writing expecting to be taught calligraphy. She was very nice, and we shared a smile about it, but since then I’ve been even more careful when creating course titles.

The question of what happens in one of my reading groups is trickiest to put across, I’ve usually only a title and a ‘strapline’ of thirty or forty words to get it right.  Despite that word reading, what we mostly do is talk about what we’ve already read, according to a schedule that I’ve set.  Aren’t my homework tasks the best?

pixabay woman readingI think of my reading sessions as following two main themes.  First, there are the hard-hitters: the short stories. These are the pieces of writing you should never underestimate.  At their best, they can turn your ideas upside down or inside out in a handful of pages.

For this term, that will be crime fiction, starting from the 1930s.  We’ll be reading through the twentieth century, taking in some of the top writers from Britain and America.

My heavy hitter, this autumn, is Elizabeth Gaskell’s, North and South.  Why do I describe it in that way?  Well not just because this is a great novel, it also has a little to do with the fact that my paperback copy weighs a hefty 12 ounces (that’s 496 pages) and in the hands of a trained killer might turn into a handy weapon.  There, you see, it’s not for nothing that I lead imaginative writing sessions.

The principle I follow has been summed up neatly by Francine Prose, in her book, Reading Like a Writer.  She describes the advantages of exploring books and stories that challenge us:

…I’ve always found that the better the book I’m reading, the smarter I feel, or, at least, the more able I am to imagine that I might, someday become smarter.

It works for readers and writers alike.

22 thoughts on “Are we passive or active readers?

  1. Great post! Ah, yes, active reading. I’m trying to teach this to adults online, and it rarely goes well. That said, I didn’t appreciate active reading until…heavens, graduate school. In college, I considered myself “smart enough” to “get it.” Silly Past Me. 🙂 Even now there are plenty of themes and such that still go over my head, but at least I feel like I’m walking with the narrative rather than sitting several feet away in a lounge chair with a cooler propping up my feet and a beer barely gripped between my fingers. xxxxxxx

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Jean. I think a lot of us get to active reading late. It’s easy to become so totally involved in the story to the exclusion of all else, including life happening around us.

      But when I once discovered some of the tricks, there was no stopping me. I think that’s why I like short stories, there are so many that are perfect for active reading.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’ve not been much for short stories, but I really should be, now that I’m trying to write them! 🙂 You’re right about reading. Sometimes we just get too into the story to think about the narrative goings-on behind the curtain first. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • And I do think getting right into the story is good, it’s what it’s all about. Reading is first and foremost about enjoyment – and I see that as applying to fact, fiction and all the shades in-between.

          For me, the really active reading comes with the second/third etc read. Then I’m ready to think about how the words work.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that course titles require great thought. As with you, a lady arrived at my last course expecting calligraphy. She stayed and we laughed about it but she never returned.
    When we read, don’t we identify with one or more characters? Attach ourselves to them, hoping that everything turns out well. As writer, I also imagine alternative scenes. I guess I am an active reader. Good post, Cath. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Lynda.

      Fancy you having someone make the same calligraphy mistake…
      You’re right, that identification is one of the ways we’re actively engaged. And a book that transports you beyond the last pages is a wonderful experience, isn’t it?


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