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Art of Reading

Course No. 2198
Professor Timothy Spurgin, Ph.D.
Lawrence University
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Course No. 2198
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 200 on-screen teaching points, extensive quotations, and photographs. The on-screen teaching points help contextualize the difference between good and bad dialogue, and the patterns to be found in how chapters are laid out; and the photographs and portraits include those of authors whose works make great ways to practice the art of reading, like Jorge Luis Borges and Edith Wharton. There are on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

You definitely know how to read. But do you know how to read artfully? Unlike everyday reading, artful reading—the way we read novels and short stories—is less about reading for specific information and more about reading to revel in the literary experience.

It involves recognizing

  • how a story's particular narrative style affects your connection with its characters,
  • why authors choose to hint at meanings instead of just writing them out for you,
  • how the organization of a novel into distinct chapters can affect your engagement with its plot, and much more.

When you approach a work of fiction the way you do an e-mail or report or newspaper, you miss out on all of this. You're not getting everything you should out of the reading experience. Learning the skills and techniques of artful reading can improve your life in many ways.

  • If you're a fiction reader, they can make your first reading of a new novel or short story feel as rewarding as a second or third reading, and they can give you new perspectives on works you already cherish.
  • If you're an aspiring writer, they can help you understand the methods that great writers use to tackle literary concepts—successful methods you can then apply to your own writing.
  • If you're a book club member, they can enliven discussions and provide your group with engaging activities to create even deeper appreciations of the works you're reading.
  • If you're a student, they can improve and enhance the close reading skills essential to success in high school, college, and beyond.

And the best part: These skills are not difficult or unwieldy; rather, they are well within your reach. According to award-winning Professor Timothy Spurgin, who has made a career of enlightening students about the benefits of artful reading, great readers are made, not born.

This idea forms the core of The Art of Reading, Professor Spurgin's entertaining 24-lecture course that brings together concepts and techniques rarely found in a single package. Teaching with an engaging and conversational style, he gives you the knowledge and methods to approach even the most daunting reading experience with increased confidence.

Master the Fundamentals of Fiction

An artful reading experience relies on a concrete grasp of the basic elements of fiction, and The Art of Reading is a great way to master them. Throughout the first half of the course, you learn the definitions and characteristics of terms such as authorship, master plot, theme, genre, and metafiction.

While some of these nuts-and-bolts concepts may be familiar to you, Professor Spurgin examines them from multiple angles, revealing hidden meanings that can escape even experienced readers. For example:

  • How many types of realism are there?
  • What are the differences between a work's plot and its story?
  • How can you spot ambiguity in a passage and not confuse it with irony?

Professor Spurgin's answers to these and other hazy questions about the fundamentals of fiction are easily understandable and never bogged down in complicated literary theory. In some instances, he emphasizes a particular element's purposes, strengths, and weaknesses through exercises in which you mentally "rewrite" passages by iconic writers. One intriguing exercise asks you how Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" would read if it were narrated in the third person instead of the first person.

Discover the Artful Reader's Toolbox

Central to Professor Spurgin's lectures are the practical tips and techniques designed to maximize your effectiveness as an artful reader. The Art of Reading gives you a veritable toolbox that you'll find essential to mining everything you need from a novel or short story.

Here is a sample of Professor Spurgin's great suggestions for more artful reading:

  • Holding an initial reading session: Getting into a book is like getting acquainted with another person, so it's important to make your first reading session a fairly long one—between one hour and 90 minutes. This will give you enough time to become familiar with the author's writing style and the characters. Even if you can't return to the book for days, when you do you'll still be returning to something familiar.
  • "Pre-reading": Instead of diving headfirst into a new work, leaf through it and explore its organization and structure. Are there chapters, parts, volumes? What might these divisions say about the possible direction of the work? This technique will help make even the lengthiest novel seem less daunting.
  • Constantly asking questions: Make a point to ask yourself questions about what you're reading, such as the motivations of its characters or the potential outcomes of an event. If you keep brief notes about various possibilities as you continue reading, you'll feel more deeply involved with the characters and their stories.

And these are just a few suggestions! You'll also learn insights into how to contribute to book club discussions, choose the right translation, notice the "beats" in a particular scene, decipher what characters aren't saying in their dialogue, and more.

Learn through Literary "Case Studies"

Throughout the lectures, Professor Spurgin uses a host of literary "case studies" to refine and elaborate on the concepts of artful reading. Unlike other literature-themed courses, The Art of Reading focuses less on a literary analysis of works like A Christmas Carol, Jane Eyre, and The Age of Innocence and more on how artful readers can use their skills to recognize why these works are so significant.

Professor Spurgin also uses literary examples to show how you can finally approach works that, in the past, might have seemed intimidating. He shows you how to read and understand Modernist literature (As I Lay Dying), epic novels (War and Peace), and even the differences between reading a novel and a short story.

In today's busy world, it can be difficult to set aside quality time to savor a great work of literature—the kind of novel or short story that readers have cherished for centuries. After taking this course, you'll be able to use Professor Spurgin's suggested tips to get the most out of the valuable time you spend with these and other classic books.

Rediscover the Joy of Reading

Professor Spurgin understands, first and foremost, the sheer joy of reading and just how contagious that joy is. His engaging teaching skills have brought him numerous teaching honors at Lawrence University—and he delivers every lecture of The Art of Reading in this same acclaimed, award-winning style.

At its core, The Art of Reading is not about complicated literary terms and theories. It's about the wonderful feeling of engaging with a novel or short story on all levels and learning how artful readers think about and approach the works they read. Whether you're someone who loves curling up with a good book, a writer who is looking for insights into how to get inside your readers' minds, or a student who wants to contribute to class discussions, there's something for you to find in this course.

What's more, you won't have to comb through shelves of books searching for ways to get more out of your reading. With The Art of Reading, you'll get a comprehensive and concise package that finally brings together all the myriad ways you can make your future reading experiences more engaging and—most important—more enlightening.

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24 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
Year Released: 2009
  • 1
    Artful Reading and Everyday Reading
    In this introductory lecture, discover the difference between everyday reading (reading to extract information) and artful reading (reading to take pleasure in language). Also, learn how noted author C. S. Lewis defined the two types of readers, and outline the methods you'll use over the next 23 lectures. x
  • 2
    Authors, Real and Implied
    You spend a lot of time with your favorite authors. But what is the difference between a real author and an implied author? Learn the answer to this intriguing question by examining a familiar story, the theories of two literary critics, and personal opinions from two iconic Western writers. x
  • 3
    Narrators—Their Voices and Their Visions
    First- and third-person narrators are the two most common narrators to be found in literature. In this lecture, Professor Spurgin argues the pros and cons of each form and the unique ways they influence your reading experience, using stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne as examples. x
  • 4
    Characters—Beyond Round and Flat
    For most readers, nothing is more important than a story's characters. Here, investigate what makes characters flat (unchanging) or round (dynamic) with an example by Anton Chekov—a master of literary characterization. Then, learn the secret to determining whether a character is worth reading about. x
  • 5
    Descriptions—People, Places, and Things
    Discover an alternative to skipping detailed descriptions in your reading. As stories by John Updike and Flannery O'Connor demonstrate, descriptions not only create vivid impressions, they also provide the potential for new perspectives, deepen your understanding of the characters, and sharpen your interest in the story. x
  • 6
    Minimalists to Maximalists to Lyricists
    What are the two fundamental elements of style? Does the style in which a story is told really make a difference in how it affects you? And which style is the best one to read? Uncover the answers in this engaging look at how writers work—and play—with words. x
  • 7
    Explosive Devices—Irony and Ambiguity
    Professor Spurgin teaches you how to heighten your ability to detect irony and ambiguity in your reading with a look at Katherine Mansfield's classic short story, "Bliss." By understanding the different forms of irony and ambiguity and picking up on their use, you can radically change your opinion on an entire work. x
  • 8
    Reading for the Plot—Five Simple Words
    Plots are what hook us at the beginning of a reading experience and what keep us reading through to the end. Unpack the mechanics of a work's plot—what goes into it, how it can be arranged and presented to the reader, and how to distinguish the plot from the story. x
  • 9
    Master Plots—The Stranger and the Journey
    Continue your explorations of plot with a look at master plots—familiar plots that appear everywhere—and genres. Learn to recognize the difference between the two terms, how they shape your reading experience, and why you can't begin to make sense of a book before placing it in a particular genre. x
  • 10
    The Game Is Afoot—Sherlock Holmes
    In the first of three lectures that take you through the elements of fiction as they appear in classic works, apply your newfound knowledge and skills to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. As you work through various stylistic questions, discover why Holmes is considered both a writer and a reader. x
  • 11
    The Plot Thickens—Scott and Brontë
    Most of the literary examples so far have been short stories, but what happens when you're reading a larger novel such as Sir Walter Scott's or Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre? See how Professor Spurgin's tips and tricks to more artful reading still apply—even when you're faced with hundreds of pages of material. x
  • 12
    The Plot Vanishes—Faulkner and Woolf
    Innovative and experimental, Modernist literature can sometimes be intimidating for first-time—or even seasoned—readers. In this case study of the Modernist masterpieces As I Lay Dying and The Waves, learn how to approach these types of novels with increased confidence. x
  • 13
    Chapters, Patterns, and Rhythms
    Now, turn to one of the smaller units of storytelling: the chapter. Chapters are more than just convenient places to stop reading; they are carefully arranged and organized by the writer. Learn how to tease out these connections with a look at chapters from two very different novels: Great Expectations and My Antonia. x
  • 14
    Scene and Summary, Showing and Telling
    Zoom in on the structure of an individual chapter and learn how to distinguish between its scene and its summary. Learn why these two terms are, in the opinion of Professor Spurgin, the basic building blocks of fiction by seeing them at work in The Mayor of Casterbridge and Disgrace. x
  • 15
    Subtexts, Motives, and Secrets
    Sharpen your ability to understand subtext—the meaning that lies beneath the words and actions of characters in a particular scene. Using Jane Austen's classic novel Persuasion as a case study, develop some techniques for gleaning hidden meaning in the novels you read. x
  • 16
    Dialogue—The Good, the Bad, the Ugly
    Focus on a topic touched on in previous lectures: dialogue. Using examples from classic and contemporary novels, Professor Spurgin shows you how to tell the difference between convincing dialogue and flat dialogue; he also calls attention to the relationship between a literary genre and the style of its dialogue. x
  • 17
    Metafiction—Fiction about Fiction
    Metafiction is, essentially, fiction about fiction; with these particular reading experiences, anything is possible. Learn how to read, make sense of, and—most important—enjoy this complex and demanding genre by examining works by two of its recognized masters: Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. x
  • 18
    Adaptation—From Fiction to Film
    Tackle the age-old question: Why is the movie never as good as the book? Each medium approaches the act of storytelling in markedly different ways. Using cinematic versions of Heart of Darkness as examples, discover how film adaptations can provide you with a sharper sense of the strengths of their literary sources. x
  • 19
    Realism Times Four
    What do writers and literary critics mean when they talk about "realism"? Unpack the meaning of this writing style, distinguish between the four types of realism, and discover how H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds endows the science fiction conceit of a extraterrestrial invasion with a startling sense of realism. x
  • 20
    Thumbs Up?—Interpretation and Evaluation
    The question of how to interpret a work is one of the thorniest in literary theory. Do artful readers respect the intentions of a text, or do they question its hidden assumptions? Is there a right or wrong way to interpret and evaluate a book? Find out in this lecture. x
  • 21
    A Long Short Story—"Runaway"
    Examine Alice Munro's "Runaway," a short story whose power can be unearthed with the techniques outlined in earlier lectures. By reading this story in an artful manner, you can learn just why it is that Munro and writers like her are so admired and respected by critics and readers. x
  • 22
    A Classic Novel—The Age of Innocence
    In the second of three case studies, turn to Edith Wharton's masterpiece of old New York: The Age of Innocence. Professor Spurgin demonstrates how a close, artful reading of the novel's narrator and its intriguing central character reveal deep insights into the social complexities of late 19th-century New York City. x
  • 23
    A Baggy Monster—War and Peace
    Develop successful reading strategies for those times when you're confronted with a book that runs nearly a thousand pages in length. Case in point: Leo Tolstoy's mammoth Russian masterwork, War and Peace. As you explore familiar issues of artful reading, you also learn how to approach works written in translation. x
  • 24
    Picking Up the Tools
    Conclude the course with this exploration of endings, specifically the closing passages of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Persuasion. What makes for a satisfying conclusion to a reading experience? Also, revisit some of the major benefits of becoming a more artful reader. x

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Your professor

Timothy Spurgin

About Your Professor

Timothy Spurgin, Ph.D.
Lawrence University
Dr. Timothy Spurgin is the Bonnie Glidden Buchanan Professor of English Literature and Associate Professor of English at Lawrence University, where he has taught for more than 15 years. He received his B.A. at Carleton College and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Virginia. A respected and admired lecturer, Professor Spurgin teaches courses on Romanticism, contemporary critical theory, and the...
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Reviews

Rated 4.3 out of 5 by 83 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Surprisingly Captivating AUDIO DOWNLOAD I got this course despite earlier dismissing it as unnecessary, assuming it would likely be a fussy series of lectures about something I have been doing well (or, so I thought) for decades. After listening to Professor Spurgin’s TC course on ‘The English Novel’, however, I was eager for more by him and followed that up with the ‘Art of Reading’. I am so glad I broke through those assumptions about my abilities and spent 12 useful, absorbing, and entertaining hours with Professor Spurgin. For me, this has been a breakthrough course. Not that I had previously been a failure at reading “serious” literature, but I had not been going about it “artfully” enough, had not been patient and sensitive enough to fully appreciate what the author had created. Professor Spurgin goes right to the heart of the matter in distinguishing artful reading from everyday reading and how important it is for us to take our reading to a higher level. If we go about reading literature in the same direct and often unreflective way in which we read the newspaper and e-mails, we are going to miss out on a great deal in those short stories and novels, both in content and in enjoyment. This was not an entirely new idea for me, and over the years I stumbled on to and/or developed some of the practices advocated by Professor Spurgin. But the great value of this course is how Professor Spurgin brings everything you might need together to become a more artful reader. He does this in a well-crafted series of lectures that incrementally takes you up the ladder of knowledge and skill, with every lecture enlivened and illustrated with exceptionally good excerpts from a wide range of literature. A side benefit of this course is being introduced to a number of new authors, not only the well-known classic authors but also excellent contemporary ones as well. Though this is a course primarily for readers, it has a great deal in it that would be useful to aspiring fiction writers as well. In fact, at several points in the lectures Professor Spurgin pitches his remarks to them. It is hard for me to believe that I actually enjoyed discussions of such elements of fiction writing as diction, subtexts, character development, dialogue, free indirect discourse (fondly referenced as FID), narrative voices, plots and stories, and summary and scene. But I did. Considering the subjects, these were not the tortured and complicated lectures one might expect. This is because Professor Spurgin related the subject of each lecture to specific works of fiction, from which he quotes often and sometimes at significant length. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that there are two master plots in fiction, the stranger comes to town and hero takes a journey, and that short stories and novels need a destabilizing event that knocks the characters off balance and set the plot in motion. I never really thought about these and a great number of related matters, though I suppose much in this course is no great revelation to literature majors. Professor Spurgin labors throughout to give us what we need to know in order to better appreciate literature. He “…challenge[s] two common misconceptions: first, that smart, sensitive readers are born, not made; and second, that sophistication and intelligence are the sworn enemies of pleasure and delight. From start to finish, it should be clear that the art of reading can be taught—and that mastering this art is both exciting and rewarding” (Course Guidebook, Page 1). Among the many easy practices that Professor Spurgin recommends (and elaborates upon in the lectures) are pre-reading; giving the book a 50 page test before rejecting it; stopping a third of the way through “…to take stock, formulate questions, and make predictions… think about the characters and plot…[and] take time to reread the first chapter to see if they seem different this time…[as well as] close reading, which is looking at a passage and thinking about the language ” (Page 79). There’s a great deal more, but Professor Spurgin cautions against trying to apply all the tools and practices to every book, “Instead, let yourself play it by ear when deciding what to focus on” (Page 78). There are significant depths to this course, as well, and it could have an impact on you as you develop into an artful reader. As Professor Spurgin notes, “In time, this sort of reading inevitably forces you to confront yourself. You see that you have underestimated a character in a story by Chekhov, or Mansfield, or O’Connor—and you ask yourself how you let that happen. What set of prejudices or presuppositions was operating there? What made you feel superior to that sort of person? What made you so sure that your own life was so different?” (Page 78). Moreover, there are “… practical benefits to this sort of reading. It sensitizes you to language and makes you more alert to verbal nuance and texture. This in turn can feed back into your own writing. It inevitably forces you to confront yourself. Finally, it helps you to accept yourself” (Page 80-81). I do not want to go too far in describing the course content, and hopefully what I have written provides sufficient hints of scope and depth. I should note, however, that not only is Professor Spurgin a top-notch lecturer, but he is also quite personable and regularly anticipates questions. He makes sure that the lectures have some fun and interesting content. For instance, in lecture six on style, Professor Spurgin demonstrates how Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald might handle writing about “feeding the dog” (a laugh out loud moment for me), and in lecture eighteen he shows why film adaptations of literature often do not work out well, using the example of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (the TV version falling far short, while the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’ comes surprisingly close to the impact of Conrad’s story). In the last lecture he has great suggestions for book club participants, and even book-related games for families and friends. What more could you want in a course on reading and writing? I highly recommend this course! November 15, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by Entertaining and instructive, But... I am not sure who the intended audience for this course was. It seemed to be pitched at a high school level or for undereducated adults who approach literature with trepidation. Maybe it was designed for members of book clubs who feel inadequate at their club meetings? The professor had a clear voice and a supremely confident manner, but this was overdone to the point that at times he was almost unbearably condescending. Despite those flaws, I enjoyed the course. It's a nice survey of fundamental concepts for approaching and appreciating quality fiction. Examples were well-chosen and varied, including some well-known American and British novels and short stories as well as some Russian ones. I liked the professor's creative little thought experiments and felt they added interest to his topics. I'd read EM Forster and a few of the other works of criticism he cited, but nevertheless I still learned a few points that will inform my future fiction reading. If you read a lot but never formally took English classes, you may find this course valuable. September 24, 2016
Rated 4 out of 5 by A Fine Intro to Literature Course This is exactly the course that ought to be taught to every high school student in the country, or to college freshmen if they missed it in high school. It covers the very basics of reading literature, from figuring out the difference between the author and the narrator, to essential plot analysis (the characteristics of the beginning, middle, and end, a la Aristotle, and the contrast between the story and the plot), to the difference between showing and telling (scene and summary), to a consideration of various components of realism (presentation, content, psychological, and moral), to some very brief and simplistic analysis of works from short stories to "War and Peace" (yes, "War and Peace" in 30 minutes), and much else besides. All of this is important for anyone desiring to appreciate literature - that is, the stuff some pretentious bookstores put in the "literature" as opposed to the "fiction" section. None of it is deep or complex; once the points are made they will often seem obvious. Yet many get through our educational system without ever considering how to appreciate and enjoy reading. It is for these folks that this course is ideal. At the same time, if you have had a few good English lit teachers, in high school or college, you have likely learned most of what is covered here, and the course may not be worth your time or money. Professor Spurgin speaks very well, with excellent voice control and modulation that helps keep your interest, even if it is obvious he's reading from a teleprompter. He is well organized - perhaps too well organized, in that he is constantly telling us what we are going to do and what we have done, far more than is helpful. Also, as another reviewer has noted, he often sounds like he is talking to elementary schoolers, given the level of many of his comments and the unnecessary yet frequent tag questions. You know what I mean, right? Perhaps most disappointing, the discussion of evaluation in lecture 20 was extremely simplistic, and covered only the evaluation of theme, ignoring all of the other components of literature which he has been covering. (As a small aside, I also found his analysis of "Bliss" in lecture 7 to be completely wrong-headed, and his explanation of ambiguity in the same lecture to be, well, ambiguous, if not just wrong. I'd appreciate hearing others' comments on this.) And I agree with others that the Course Guidebook is pitifully short and unhelpful. So - Yes, I do recommend this course, even recommend it highly, for beginning students of literature, at whatever stage of life you may be at. Those with more experience in this area may be disappointed. In any case, enjoy your reading. September 19, 2016
Rated 4 out of 5 by Reading and writing ideas Solid course, helpful for readers of all experience levels and even for aspiring (fiction) writers. The course both introduced concepts that were new to me and also gave explicit names and definitions to some of my previous intuitions about reading. The range of topics seemed very appropriate, as was the length of the course for the material. However, for some reason I usually felt ready for the lectures to end about 5-6 minutes before they were finished. Professor Spurgin's descriptions were clearly understandable; he used analogies well to help clarify several of them. As a bonus, I added several of the discussed works to my reading list. May 13, 2016
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