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The Value of Critical Reading

In addition to being Editor of Stone Soup, I am also a university instructor. When I teach creative writing, I like to tell my students that the most important part of the class is not writing but reading because reading will you teach you how to be a writer.

As you sit there, eagerly turning the page to find out what will happen next, you are also taking in sentence structures, vocabulary, pacing, and the many other features that make up a poem, a story, or a book. On top of this, you are learning about what kinds of books have already been written. If you want to be a writer, it is crucial to learn about the history of the genre in which you want to write. All writers build on the work of other writers. Writing that is not built on this foundation of knowledge is often, like a house without a foundation, unable to stand for long. Finally, when you read, you are also learning about your own tastes: What do you like to read, and why? This can often help you uncover interesting insights about yourself.

But all reading is not equal. Have you ever been told “You are what you eat”? Well, the same is true for what you read. If you want to be a mystery writer, read mysteries; if you want to be a poet, read poetry. But you don’t want to read just any mysteries or poems: you want to read the best mysteries and the best poems (with some breaks in between for some literary “junk food”!). The best writing and art is that which rewards close study and rereading. It is the novel or poem that you can’t stop thinking about, the one in which you find something new each time you read it. It is classic literature.

The review is a place to celebrate reading—but not just any reading: close and critical reading. Writing a review pushes you to engage more deeply with a text than you might have otherwise. It opens up a dialogue between you and the book and the author, allowing you to discover more about yourself and the text in the process. In my experience, writing critically about a work I already love makes me love it even more: it makes visible all the previously invisible threads that make it so incredible. I realize now what I should say to my creative writing students is that reading critically will teach them how to be writers.

You will notice that one of the reviews in this issue is a review of a film. Although I am talking specifically about books in this introduction, movies, paintings, sculptures, and other visual modes can be “read” as well, and it is just as important to engage critically with work in these mediums as well.

With this in mind, I ask you to try to write at least one review this summer. Read, listen, watch; then re-read, re-listen, re-watch. And, finally, think critically about what you’ve just encountered. See what it feels like to spend time, outside of class, thinking through a work you really love (or hate).

We look forward to reading the results!