Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Reading with Two Brains

One of the great joys of summer vacations, especially as a teacher or a student, is the time to read, and to truly lose yourself in a book. But ever since I've gotten serious about my writing, I find I read with two brains. One is the reader, who drops herself deep down into the world of the story, journeys with the characters, hopes and fears with them and, if the author does his or her job right, can't stop until the book is done. The other brain is the writer brain. She has a much tougher job, and she knows it. She's clinical, analytical, and sits way up high studying, taking notes. She often tries to muscle the reader out of the way so she can get a closer look at the machinery behind the magic. She's Toto to the reader-brain's Dorothy, pulling away that curtain so she can reveal the wizard's true self.

I'm always telling myself that the writer brain deserves to take a closer look. She deserves a chance to go for another ride on the book, to take her time and pick apart the language and the technique that swept the reader off her feet. But the reader, ever a bit flighty and always looking for the next magic moment, insists, "But I've already read that one! I want to try this one out! There are so many books, and so little time!"

My writer brain has gotten pretty good at catching things on-the-fly, identifying where a particular book or author has demonstrated special mastery. J.K. Rowling makes me want to turn the page the way Doritoes make me want to keep eating. Water for Elephants has an incredible opening scene. Lovely Bones demonstrates a brilliant and unusual use of point of view. Dickens creates unforgettable characters and writes fantastic dialogue. The Hobbit is a beautiful example of voice. I could go on and on.

"Yes, yes," says my writer brain. "That's WHAT they did. But HOW? HOW? That's the most valuable part! I must have the chance for further study!" I wonder, if I let her have her way, would she be strong enough to take charge and analyze the way she wants? Or would my reader brain once again win the struggle, caught up in the magic spell of words, story and character that won her over in the first place?

Once, long ago in college, I had to do exactly that - analyze, analyze, analyze. I did fine, but I'm not sure I ever did it with quite this purpose - as the sorcerer's apprentice, hoping to learn the master's spells and tricks well enough to apply them to my own magic.

Have you ever re-read a book purely to analyze the technique in-depth? What book? What did you learn?

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