What makes a reader active or passive when reading a literary text?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The terms "passive reader" and "passive reading" were criticized and challenged as early as 1995. Brock Haussamen suggested in "The Passive Reading Fallacy" that the terminology is misused as it is misunderstood. First developed in an educational environment, passive reading was defined as the reading a student does who feels they have no control over what they retain and understand and what they don't: they feel passive victims of intellectual elements of academic endeavor that are beyond them.

they do so [read texts] with a helpless feeling that they don't have much control over what they comprehend or remember. (Haussamen citing (Blintz, 1993))

Nonetheless, the terminology has persistently stayed in use and has taken several manifestations. (1) One popularized manifestation is that passive reading is leisure reading that requires no great effort, for example, reading a "beach novel" or sports magazine. This also suggests that passive reading neglects literary analysis in that devices such as irony, symbolism and metaphor are neither sought out nor noticed. (2) Another manifestation relates to Reader Response literary theory, suggesting passive reading avoids/neglects relating personal experience and background to the text being read.

(3) The current academic manifestation, as pointed out by Haussamen's reference to a college anthology, is that passive reading is that which is devoid of annotated text and note taking and devoid of internal debate or critical argument with the author; it is listening "passively" to the author's "monologue." So depending upon which manifestation of the original pedagogic term you prefer, passive reading may mean one of many things.

Perhaps in the study of literary texts, the best understanding of "passive reading" as a contemporary manifestation would be a combination of (1), reading without attention to analytical concerns, and (2), reading without drawing upon background and experience, and (3), listening without thought to the author's "monologue" by neglecting to make it a dialogue of exchanged thought, even if that exchange is nothing more than feeling the same impact from Darcy's letter as Elizabeth feels (Austen, Pride and Prejudice).

Active reading and an active reader would be the converse of these things. An active reader is one who attends to analytical concerns; who draws upon background and experience; who pursues an internal dialogue with the author; and who, most importantly, feels control over their ability to comprehend and remember the text and its details.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his preface to The Great Gatsby, Matthew J. Bruccoli writes,

Literature has staying power, but it is subject to metamorphosis.   Every reader's response to a work of fiction is determined by his or her presupppositional biases, beliefs, experience, and knowledge.

There is no question that readers' ken has much to do with their interaction with the text that they peruse.  If, for example, a literary work has as its setting a historical period in which a reader is particularly interested, then that work becomes stimulating and the reader is actively involved with the text. On the other hand, if the text has as its subject matter that which is of little relevance or knowledge to the reader, or if the text is too abstruse for the reader, then his or her perusal will be passive, at best.  For instance, the reader who is not acquainted with the writings and biography of James Joyce or his technique of stream of consciousness, may derive little from reading the novel as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  With little or no interaction with the text, the reader of such a work will be merely passive, at least until he or she acquires more knowledge of literature and experience.