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How to Read Well

For the bibliophile in all of us.

Okay, so you know how to read. But do you know how to read well?

Being a good reader is just as important as being a good writer, and we here at Shmoop think you need to be the first in order to be the second. This course will turn you from a lover of literature into a student of literature.

But don't worry: you won't lose any love along the way.

Course Breakdown

Unit 1. Baby Steps; or, The Road to Analysis

If there's one takeaway from this unit, it should be this: everything matters. From the title of the book to the way an author describes his protagonist (and everything in between), reading well means looking at a text from all angles. Once you've got the basics under your belt (what's a metaphor? how do I prep my book for reading?), you'll be ready to get to analyzing (what's that metaphor doing? why do all my marginal notes matter?). You'll dig deep into symbols and themes, titles and endings, content and form. And by the end of the unit, you'll be analyzing everything you see.

Unit 2. Special Topics in Shmoopology

Now that you're an analysis pro, it's time to put those skillz into action. In this unit, you'll take a look at some specific genres: novels, short stories, drama, poetry, and bestsellers (if you can call that last one a genre—more on that later). You'll be using the tools you got in the previous unit to tackle each type of literature.

Sample Lesson - Introduction

Lesson 8: The Final Showdown: Summary vs. Analysis

                  You think this is weird?
         Try summarizing a corset. (Source)

So you've decided to try your hand at literary analysis. You write what you think is a brilliant interpretation of the end of Shakespeare's great tragedy Hamlet, thinking you're a shoo-in for an A. But then, to your utter dismay, your teacher returns your paper with a giant D on top. Not even a + for good measure.

What gives?

"I asked for a close reading," your teacher says. "You gave me a book report."


You've just made a Classic Mistake (yes, that comes with capitals): too much summary, not enough analysis.

It's an important distinction to make. A book report might summarize, but an interpretation analyzes. Your teacher might call it an analysis, a close reading, an explication—but whatever you call it, it's about critical thinking.

Each Shmoop literature module features a section for summary and a section for analysis—but analysis is really all over the place on our guides. And it should be all over the place in your brains, too.