A Basic Guide to Critical Reading

Ask yourself: what do I see? what does it mean? and how can it be understood?

What do I see?

When I am reading a text critically, first of all, I always have a pencil – I am looking to ask questions, not write answers. I am asking myself if I have an accurate grasp of the genre, of the argument, of the points used to back up the argument. If it is a short text, I try to read it in its entirety first before doing a mark up, though usually I can’t help myself and have marked it up by the time I’ve finished my first read.

Why is it sometimes good to read without marking it up?

When we suspend judgment of a text (or of people, places or things), then we are more likely to get a sense of what or who they are on their own terms, and then we are more likely to be shaped by them. This is sometimes called “the willing suspension of disbelief” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817). The risk is of course that sometimes unethical things need to be challenged more than engaged, for example Birth of a Nation or Mein Kampf. We can’t just open our minds to anything.

What does it mean?

Write down – don’t just think it to yourself – your first interpretation. Then re-examine this in light of history, genre, and your own knowledge background/personal wisdom. This last point is particularly important when reading for social justice. Seek the perspectives of people from the margins about the topic at hand. If you possess a marginalized or underrepresented identity, bring your own personal internal wisdom to bear upon the text and engage with it deeply – hopefully this engagement can be shared for the benefit of community and society.

Finally, after doing all of these other things, study the text in light of critical literature on the text, its history, the history of its interpretation, and the author/their social location.

Incorporate all of these things and rework your first interpretation accordingly.

How can it be understood?

Compare the text with other similar texts. Compare the text with texts it is writing against or to defend. Compare the text with newspaper articles or popular books on the topic.

After you have done all of this, consider the text in light of your personal life. What are some passages that challenge you? Inspire you?

What are the implications of the text and of your interpretations of the text?

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