Study Advice: 5 Tips for Reading Modernist Literature

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“The Scream” (1893) by Edvard Munch.

First things first: no, you are not an idiot.

The modernist literary movement tossed realism out the window and replaced it with sensory impressions and stream-of-consciousness narration in an attempt to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound put it. After all, post-WWI life could not be expressed through the old traditional forms. The result was a way of writing that confuses many readers and terrifies university students the second they see The Wasteland on their reading list, and with good reason: modernist literature is difficult. It is often dense, fragmented, full of obscure allusions, and thus asks more from the reader than your average novel. Tackling a modernist work demands commitment, patience, and attention, but if you are willing to put in the work, you can discover a whole new world way of writing unlike anything you have ever seen before.

As someone who took a very long time to come to appreciate the movement (we’re talking years here), I know how daunting a book like To The Lighthouse can be. That’s why I have put together a list of five simple tips to get you going.

1. Take your time.
Modernism is all about the language, so reading any of these works hastily or skipping to the end defeats the purpose. Pour yourself a cup of tea, settle in, and make sure that there are no distractions.

2. Know that keeping track of the plot (if there even is one) is not the number one priority.
In fact, it can be quite difficult to keep track of what on earth is going on sometimes. Like I said, modernism is usually all about language, about conveying sensory experiences and trains of thought. Try to let it all wash over you, go wherever the book is trying to take you. You can worry about pesky details like plot and character later. Just let go. Ssshhhh.

3. Keep reading.
Don’t get bogged down by details that puzzle you, but keep going. If you let yourself get stuck every time it get confusing, your “reading flow” will be broken and you don’t want that; it’s better to push through until things makes sense again.

4. Reread.
Having taken in this flood of words, let it sink in for a bit. Brood on it, let it bounce around in your brain for a few days… And then go back. This is when you look up a plot summary, if necessary, and try to actually follow what is happening. Pay attention to how the events are depicted, who is talking, how they describe what they are feeling and sensing, what time and space are doing. Be aware of the effect this has on you as a reader.

5. Analyse.
These books can be difficult (or just plain impossible) to grasp in one go, so dig into the footnotes, break it down into little pieces, and see if you can make it make sense. Go down that rabbit hole, who knows that you might find!

Do you have some more advice on how to tackle the modernist beast? Leave a comment below!


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2 thoughts on “Study Advice: 5 Tips for Reading Modernist Literature

  • December 6, 2014 at 5:34 pm
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    My senior seminar was on modernism, so I know all of this is super valuable. My professor scoffed when we said that we looked up plot summaries on Wikipedia/Sparknotes (he’s kind of a luddite) but that was honestly the most helpful thing I did. Knowing “what was happening” made it a lot easier to let the weird language do its thing and lets you relax into enjoying the reading instead of freaking out about not knowing what’s going on.

    Reply
  • December 7, 2014 at 5:49 pm
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    My mind never rebelled against a novel as strongly as it did against The Sound and The Fury (the one exception maaaybe being Howards End). Damn that stream of consciousness stuff, who thought that was a good idea? I wanted to say that I’ve been gearing myself up for step four for a while now, but truth be told I didn’t even make it past step one. I still need a few novels to complete my Goodreads reading challenge, so this may not be the right pick for a last-minute reading dash, but I will put it on my list for January.

    Reply

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