You are often told to give a book a good critical reading. But do you know what that really means?
Critical reading means reading with the goal of finding a deep understanding of a material, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. It is the act of analyzing and evaluating what you are reading as you make your way through the text or as you reflect back upon your reading.
Using Your Head
When you read a piece of fiction critically, you use your common sense to determine what the writer means, as opposed to what the written words actually say. The following passage appears in The Red Badge of Courage, the classic Civil War-era work by Stephen Crane. In this passage, the main character, Henry Fleming, has just returned from battle and is now receiving treatment for a nasty head wound.
"Yeh don't holler ner say nothin'… an' yeh never squeaked. Yer a good un, Henry. Most 'a men would a' been in th' hospital long ago. A shot in th' head ain't foolin' business… "
The point seems clear enough. Henry is receiving praise for his apparent fortitude and bravery. But what is really happening in this scene?
During the confusion and terror of the battle, Henry Fleming had actually panicked and run away, abandoning his fellow soldiers in the process. He had received the blow in the chaos of retreat; not the frenzy of battle. In this scene, he was feeling ashamed of himself.
When you read this passage critically, you actually read between the lines. By doing so, you determine the message that the author is really conveying. The words speak of bravery, but the real message of this scene is concerned feelings of cowardice that tormented Henry.
Shortly after the scene above, Fleming realizes that nobody in the entire regiment knows the truth about his wound. They all believe that the wound was the result of fighting in the battle:
His self-pride was now entirely restored… He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man.
Despite the claim that Henry feels relieved, we know by reflecting and thinking critically that Henry isn't really comforted. By reading between the lines, we know he is deeply bothered by the sham.
What's the Lesson?
One way to read a novel critically is to be aware of the lessons or messages that a writer is sending in a subtle way.
After reading The Red Badge of Courage, a critical reader would reflect back on the many scenes and look for a lesson or a message. What is the writer trying to say about courage and war?
The good news is, there isn't a right or wrong answer. It's the act of forming a question and offering your own opinion that counts.
Nonfiction writing can be just as tricky to evaluate as fiction, although there are differences. Nonfiction writing normally involves a series of statements that are backed by evidence.
As a critical reader, you will need to be mindful of this process. The goal of critical thinking is to evaluate information in an unbiased way. This includes being open to changing your mind about a subject if the good evidence exists. However, you should also try not to be influenced by unsound evidence.
The trick to critical reading in nonfiction is to know how to separate the good evidence from the bad.
There are signs to look out for when it comes to misleading or bad evidence.
Watch for broad, unsupported statements like "most people in the pre-war South approved of slavery." Every time you see a statement, ask yourself if the author provides any evidence to back up his point.
Be mindful of subtle statements such as "Statistics support those who argue that boys are better at math than girls, so why should this be such a controversial issue?"
Don't become distracted by the fact that some people do believe that males are naturally better at math, and address that issue. When you do this, you are accepting the implication and, therefore, falling for bad evidence.
The point is, in critical reading, that the author has not provided statistics; he merely implied that statistics exist.