How To Read a Stream of Consciousness Book

My boyfriend and I have very different reading styles. When he reads, he likes to understand every bit of the book. He’s more deliberate than I am: he tries to pick apart every piece of the syntax, understand every allusion, get every symbol. I on the other hand, read quickly. I don’t spend a lot of time while I’m reading doing analyzing. I let the book wash over me. I get engrossed in plots and characters and a different time or place. I escape into my books. When I emerge, I dust myself off and think about what just happened.

 

This means that we’re suited to different types of books. My boyfriend is stellar at reading straightforward books, books like The Great Gatsby that are full of symbols and meaning but that follow a relatively linear path. I on the other hand can feed on stream of consciousness novels, things that wend different perspectives together, things that don’t quite make sense until you experience them. And so for those individuals who tend to be more analytical about their reading, let me offer some advice for reading a stream of consciousness book.

 

1.Don’t try to make sense of it. Just let it happen to you.

This can be really hard for some people. They may want to go back over and over a section until they have understood what happened in it. I often find that it’s more useful to just get a feel of something that makes no sense and then read onwards. Things are explained later. Things come to light with more information. You can always come back later. But what’s important isn’t always the specific words: it’s the mood. When you come back to analyze later you can try to figure out what created the mood, but in the instant, you need to let your brain happen in synch with the book.

 

2.Don’t try too hard to focus. Let your mind wander.

This was especially true of James Joyce for me, which is not stream of consciousness but is certainly not linear. Oftentimes stream of consciousness or non linear books don’t have a clear one to one connection between their allusions or symbols and the meaning of those allusions or symbols. They cast a wide net. You have to let your mind be open to all of the associations you feel for the images and ideas that are presented. Again, there is a kind of resonance that can happen between your mind and the novel. You may not imagine or feel the same pictures and feelings that the book presents, but your mind might throw up your version of those pictures and feelings. For example when I was reading 13 Reasons Why, instead of seeing the events as Hannah described them, my mind threw up my own experiences of depression and the images that I associated with it. It allowed me to inhabit the character through my own experience. This is often true when you get allusions, as your associations might not be exactly the same as the author’s.

 

3.Read in long stretches.

When I read a stream of consciousness style book I usually read it all in one go. This is generally not by choice, as I usually forget who I am and what I was doing until I finish the book and mourn the loss of whoever I was for those hours. But for those who have a harder time with reading things straight through, at least make sure you dedicate fair chunks of time to a book that’s about mood and feeling. This isn’t the kind of book to have on your bedside table to read a few pages before bed. This is the kind of book you take to a coffee shop and immerse yourself in. Generally these books are in the first person, and it takes a little bit to let yourself fall into character; because that’s the idea: to become the character for a time.

 

4.Analyze afterwards.

Some people like to do a lot of analysis while they’re reading. They write notes in the margins, they try and pick apart the novel as they read it. They get a lot more out of their first read than I ever could. But when you’re trying to enter someone’s stream of consciousness, you can’t be analyzing at a meta level while also inhabiting the experience. You can always come back later and consider the symbols and the themes and the characters. You can underline or star or mark the pages that seem important to you as you’re going. But let yourself be the character while you’re reading instead of trying to be the observer who figures things out.

2 thoughts on “How To Read a Stream of Consciousness Book

  1. This is a helpful blog post for me who is having a hard time reading stream of consciousness. I’m reading Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet and it’s a difficult one. Hopefully, I’ll be able to read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway after this.

  2. Richard Vega says:

    Thank you. I read “Absalom Absalom” by William Faulkner. It is a stream of consciousness book. I didn’t get much out of it, though. I’m one of those analytical types that you discussed in your blog.

    I’m presently “trying” to read “A Regular Guy,” by Mona Simpson. It too is a stream of consciousness book. Mona Simpson is the sister of the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer.

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