The Fold: Active vs Passive Reading

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It’s no secret that I didn’t enjoy The Fold. I think Nate and I make a fairly good argument that the text has numerous logical errors, inconsistent character motivations, and some truly bizarre plot choices. According to goodreads I’m in the minority, though. The overwhelming majority of readers “liked” the book. With that in mind, I want to explore the role that “Active Reading” may play in the difference between our perception (and ratings) of this book and the general audience perception of this book.

The Fold Ratings
During the podcast Nate referred to an excellent post by Shamus Young on the concept of “Story Collapse.” I won’t go into that too much here, but the basic idea is that a fictional world should remain consistent within its established rules. The rules that govern the fictional world can be very different from the rules of the real world, but in order for the reader to maintain their suspension of disbelief any established rules must be applied consistently throughout the story. “Story Collapse” occurs when the reader can no longer suspend their disbelief.

I want be clear about a few things before moving forward. Just because a story has plot holes or underdeveloped characters, it does not mean that the story is objectively¬†bad. Fiction is art and the enjoyment of art will always be subjective. I’m not arguing that The Fold is bad, or that anyone is wrong to rate it highly. The reason I mention the reviews isn’t so much for their star rating, but for the comments reviewers offered along with their ratings. For most readers who gave a review of 4 and 5-stars it doesn’t seem to be the case that they noticed the inconsistencies and liked the book anyway. It seems to be the case that they never noticed the inconsistencies that wound up collapsing the story for me. Many of the positive reviewers applaud the reveal of how the door worked, for example. This is a reveal which cemented the story collapse for both Nate and myself.

The Fold collapsed for me fairly early on, and it collapsed for Nate a little later as we began preparing for the podcast. Nate’s initial impression of The Fold was that it was a fairly average science fiction book. He was actually worried that we wouldn’t have much to talk about because it was so bland. For Nate, it wasn’t until we started trying to construct a summary of the book that the story fully unraveled and eventually collapsed. I think that part of the reason for this shift in his opinion on the book is that he switched from engaging passively with the text to engaging actively with the text.

If you’ve ever taken a college prep course, you’ve probably heard of the concept of Active Reading. Active Reading is usually discussed in the context of trying to read, understand, and learn material from a text book. “Active Reading” involves mentally engaging with the the text, as opposed to a “Passive Reading” which is more casual. Most people reading for pleasure and/or relaxation are engaged in passive reading. They read the text at a comfortable pace and make no special effort to analyze the information that they’re consuming. Someone who is engaged in active reading does make a special effort to analyze the text, and usually approaches it with a specific goal in mind. Some common techniques for active reading are: note taking, asking questions about the text before and after each reading session, making marginalia, highlighting significant passages, and making time to analyze or reflect on the text after the reading session ends.

When reading a book for the podcast Nate and I are engaged in active reading. We approach a book with several goals in mind:

  • Create a summary of the plot.
  • Identify a few key themes or ideas that we can discuss and develop throughout the summary.
  • Identify passages that deserve specific attention.
  • Record our own reactions.

Both of us will read the book independently, taking notes and highlighting as we go. We both use a kindle which significantly streamlines the process and makes it easy to share our notes and highlights. We talk about the books as we’re reading them, and once one or both of us have finished the book we start building a script for the episode that includes the full summary and talking points. The process doesn’t end with our recording. Both of us contribute to the editing for each series and we each listen to the edited podcast at least once before posting it.

This is obviously not how either of us reads for pleasure. After going through this process several times now on the podcast, I appreciate reading passively much more. It is orders of magnitude more enjoyable, but that enjoyment does come with a trade off. There is a huge difference in my ability to retain information from the books I read actively for the podcast versus the books I read passively for fun. I think it’s fair to assume that The Fold was not written with active reading and the detailed analysis that comes with it in mind. The Fold is a book that was written solely for entertainment purposes.

When I think about the discrepancy between my rating of the book and the positive ratings, there’s no denying that the way I read the book plays a role. I probably would have noticed many of the issues that I called out in the book even on a passive read, but I would not have noticed others. For example, there is a scene in the book where Jamie is given a physical examination to check for any health anomalies that her trip may have caused. I point out on the podcast that the doctor misses an incredibly obvious, and very visible anomaly that winds up being very important to the plot. This is a detail that didn’t occur to me until the day we recorded. I missed it completely on my initial read.

Knowing this, I want to try to imagine how each of us would have reviewed The Fold if we hadn’t taken it through our podcast process. I think that I probably would have given up on the book early on and not reviewed it at all. I really couldn’t stand the main character, if I’m honest. Nate would probably have landed in the 3-star camp, unimpressed, but not overly negative.

So, Dear Reader/Listener, what should you take away from this? I’m realizing as I write this that I’ve kind of unintentionally made the argument that actively reading fiction only lessens the enjoyment of the experience.

Whoops

That’s true to a point, I guess. Active reading always requires more energy, and no text is flawless. If you seek plot holes, then you will likely find plot holes. I wouldn’t recommend that a reader only ever read actively, but I do think that it’s a good skill to cultivate. I know that doing this podcast and engaging critically with a wide variety of fiction has made me a better writer. It’s made me a better reader, too. I’m more aware of how I read and where my focus goes. I find myself wondering why an author chose to write a character or a scene in a particular way. The answers are usually pretty rewarding and interesting.

I suppose I’ll end with this thought. If it weren’t for a goal-oriented approach to reading The Fold, I would have missed out on one of the most memorable reading experiences of my life. Also, I did have a whole lot of fun not-liking this book.

 

 

 

 

Ben

I co-host the Words About Books podcast with my writing partner Nate.

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