Critical Reading

A lot of my posts here are about things I do or know, but this is about something I don’t do and don’t know about.

Before that, though, a short digression into Potter Land.

I’ve come across comments about how brilliant J K Rowling must be to have come up with the weird wizarding exam system in the Potter books. What does not seem to be widely appreciated outside of Britain is that Rowling basically took the structure of British secondary education and stuck on funny labels.

The education system that I went through in the 1980s made you specialise early. After less than a decade of general schooling, at the age of thirteen children chose their subjects for O levels (since restructured as GCSEs) – eight to ten of them, to be examined at sixteen. Then in the run up to the O level exams, you chose the three or four subjects which you would be examined on for your A levels at eighteen. The parallels with the OWLS and NEWTs should be obvious*.

In my school, we chose one of a number of broad tracks – language, science, or social science, for example – and then picked subjects mostly in the track but were required to take subjects of other types to retain some shred of generality. Everyone took maths and English language.

Given my interests, I chose three sciences, one language, one social science, one arts subject, along with the required English and maths for a total of eight. Since I was in the top stream, I was then also required to take English Literature.

Ah, yes. English Literature.

It was not my favourite subject.

My understanding is that A level English Literature is an interesting subject – my mother had taken a college class to gain an English Literature A level a few years before and she spoke enthusiastically about the critical reading skills she learned on the course**.

O level English Literature wasn’t like that. My abiding memory of the subject is of being told what to think about a book and being marked on my ability to regurgitate the opinions of others. If there were elements of critical reading in the syllabus they were completely lost on me.

Which is what I would like to learn to do now. What I would like to do is to read a book I know, but analysing it as I go for things like structure, narrative technique, characterisation, and thematic presentation.

Is this something that anyone else would be interested in? Call it a writer’s book club rather than a reader’s club.

I’m inclined to make the first book be Snow Crash.

[*] I assume that in the final year, the proto-wizards and witches chose their institution of higher learning and the subject area they would study there, but since Harry dropped out of school we don’t find out about that in canon.

[**] I understand from a friend whose children have since gone through GCSE Eng Lit that critical reading skills before A level. Hurray for progress.

2 Replies to “Critical Reading”

  1. Valerie says:

    I am so glad you addressed the Potter schooling thing! Though my parents are from Scotland, I was born and grew up in the Netherlands so I had a similar “wow, how amazingly creative!” reaction to the wizard school system until Mum and Dad told me about O and A levels and that all British schools had houses people got sorted into. No sorting hat according to them, unfortunately (feel free to tell me there was a sorting hat, I’ll be glad to believe it), but a little bit of the ‘keeping the family in one house’ stuff etc.

    I highly approve of the idea of a writer’s book club. My one concern is that we read VERY different things… but I’m sure that can be edifying too. Let me know if it turns into something!

    1. Dunx says:

      No sorting hat at my school, but then no houses either – at least not in the same sense as Hogwarts. It is more of a public school* thing, I believe.

      As to the reading club, I’ll be looking for book suggestions too – it’s not as if I only ever read science fiction. If we are doing another book I don’t know, though, then I may need someone else to lead on the discussion for it.

      But I’ll be doing something with this. Keep watching the skies.

      [*] private schools in Britain are called public schools.

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