Critical Reading: Try to be a filter not a sponge

The phrase try to be a filter not a sponge is a line from the book Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I read the book a few years ago and that one line has stuck with me through these years. But how exactly does one do that? As many of you readers might know, I recently read the book How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens. And the book was very helpful in articulating a bit of what it means to read critically. Here are two activities that are involved in reading critically.

Recognizing patterns as we read

One of the earliest activities we do in school is to recognize patterns, similarities, and such. Do you remember identifying shapes (such as circles, triangles, etc.) for instance? Find five differences between the following two images. Those kind of activities were a lot of fun. But they are also extremely crucial skills that need to be developed.

What doesn’t get explained often is that this skill needs to be applied as we read books. Let us take the story of Lion King as an example. If one is able to strip the story from the cute animation, it becomes clear that the pattern is the same as the story of Hamlet. In fact, it is one of the more well-known Hamlet adaptations. This kind of pattern recognition is also an element in critically reading culture movements or political movements. An example would be how many authoritarian leaders often invoke a nation’s or a group’s glorious past as one of the myths that keeps getting repeated.

Using theoretical frameworks to interpret what we read

A key method of critical reading is to have a mental or theoretical framework to interpret a story or a narrative. Marxist thought framework for instance views narratives through the lens of the oppressor-oppressed framework. So while looking at conflict between nations, they would see the two groups as colonizer and colonized, while looking at industry, they would look at workers and the owners, and so on and so forth. Traditional Christian thought views narratives through the Biblical framework of creation-fall/sin-redemption-judgement.

This requires the reader to be aware of theoretical frameworks and to have solid conceptual understanding. This is a fundamental difference between a novice reader and an experienced one. An experienced reader might look at an article and say that it has a problematic assumption because the experienced reader uses a framework to judge the work. On the other hand, a novice reader would easily be convinced about any new idea that comes along – like a wave of the sea that is easily tossed and turned by the wind.

How can I develop critical reading?

The two activities of recognizing patterns and using frameworks are in fact related to each other. One can only build theoretical frameworks by drawing from a huge number of sources and narratives and identifying the common patterns that emerge. And so if that is the case, the question of how to develop critical reading is easy to answer.

1. Read widely

Reading widely and spotting patterns, similarities and differences are key to developing critical reading. The practice of taking notes can really help with this task. By summarizing narratives into bullet points for instance, one can see patterns emerge. Take the story of Star Wars for instance

  • Orphan boy comes across a mentor/older figure
  • Mentor trains the boy to fight a great antagonist
  • As the boy fights the evil, there is revealed a close relationship between the boy and the antagonist
  • The boy eventually kills the antagonist.

Sound familiar? Try comparing it with the plot of Harry Potter. There are significant differences – but there is also a common pattern.

2. Understand theoretical frameworks

Take time to understand existing theoretical frameworks. Theoretical frameworks exist in every subject and every discipline. Try learning them. Psychoanalytical thought (psychology), Marxist thought (Political Science), Feminist thought (Literature), Keynesian model (economics), Biblical stories (religion), Communication Based Theory (language learning). These are just a few examples..

Thorough understanding of the discipline would help one become a filter as opposed to a sponge.

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