The mere mention of literary criticism—or “lit crit” as my high school English teacher insisted on calling it—is enough to shift the average person into autopilot.
It’s one of the disciplines many young adults complain about later in life. “Why did I spend so much time discussing the meaning behind Juliet’s lipstick color when I should have been learning how to change a tire or file my taxes?!”
To that, I say: “I’d like to introduce you to my good friend, YouTube.”
But truthfully, few things have impacted me as profoundly as learning the skill of close reading. And by “read” I mean “digest media” since stories are everywhere, and learning how to consume them responsibly is an essential skill.
So, although I can no longer sit through a lighthearted movie without annoying my friends with some long-winded opinion or another, I have become better at existing by learning how to be critical of the media I consume.
In today’s social climate, many people complain about a general lack of compassion, critical thinking, listening and communication skills. I believe media literacy has the potential to help solve that problem.
If you’re interested in learning how, read on.
Forget what you think you know about close reading. Here’s how you can hone your analytical thinking skills and improve your life all while sitting on the couch with a bowl of popcorn.
One of the most important justifications for the creation of art and literature is that it helps us see humanity in one another.
When you read critically, you have to think about character, setting and plot, and how these elements interact with each other.
It’s not enough to say someone was a villain and to articulate how their actions made you feel. When you’re critiquing a story, you have to analyze why a villain chose to act in the ways they did, and why the author chose to make them act that way.
You have to develop a desire to understand the motives and circumstances of others and how they relate to the world as a whole. In doing this, you hone a comprehensive way of understanding that integrates small-scale individual problems with the bigger picture of a fictional world.
Why does having empathy for fictional characters make you a better person? Once you get into the habit of practicing empathy with characters in stories, it becomes easier to do with the wild set of characters you encounter in real life, too.
Media criticism encourages you to investigate and empathize with multiple viewpoints and perspectives. It’s no surprise that having critical thinking skills is associated with having better decision-making skills. Possessing the ability to see an issue from multiple viewpoints will allow you to form strong opinions and make informed decisions that align with your values.
Another way that media criticism helps you to make better decisions is by encouraging a better understanding of the role that stories play in marketing. If you’re able to develop an ability to understand the motives behind narrative choices, you can better understand the intention of the author that wrote the story.
Well-developed critical thinking skills could mean the difference between a story about a stray dog convincing you to donate to a local animal shelter or the same story convincing you to buy an overpriced and unnecessary high-tech dog collar.
In both campaigns, the story is the same, but your ability to discern the intention will allow you to make a decision that is right for you.
When you practice media literacy, you develop an appreciation for the art of effective communication.
If a character in a book says something that makes you feel empowered, analyzing their rhetorical techniques can help your words have the same impact on people you care about.
Communication skills are essential to positive outcomes in almost every facet of life—from your relationships to your careers. Any opportunity to improve them is worth taking.
Developing your critical and analytical thinking skills as they pertain to art and entertainment can set you up with a template for learning almost any new skill on your own.
The formula for learning new skills is incredibly similar to the formula for close reading: observe the text, analyze it and apply or contextualize your findings.
Say you want to become more confident. You could apply your critical reading skills to your social interactions. Here’s an example:
1. Observe. Choose to spend time with confident people. Observe their behaviors. What makes them different from less confident people? How can you tell they are confident?
2. Analyze. Take those observations and think critically about them. The goal is to develop a holistic understanding of all the elements that make a person confident.
3. Apply. Now, using your newfound understanding of the model, apply those findings to yourself.
It may seem oversimplified, and perhaps it is, but the truth is that practicing critical thinking skills opens you up to a world of learning opportunities. So how you choose to do so—whether it be reading or watching movies—doesn’t matter as much as if you choose to do so.
Want to read more about close reading and media criticism? For writers like myself, there are few books about critical reading as valuable as Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. For a more general take on media criticism, try Better Living Through Criticism by award-winning film critic A. O. Scott.
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