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Reading With and Against the Grain

One reason to become a good reader is to understand how writers write. A good reader is one who reads actively, interacting with the text in many ways and reading deeply, looking for more than main ideas or answers to simple questions. Understanding ideas, questioning ideas, coming to your own conclusions, reading what words literally say as well as what words imply, and thinking about and considering what a writer does not say as well as what she does say are all parts of critical thinking and reading – reading, thinking, writing are the intertwined parts of the reading and writing process.

We have borrowed two labels, “reading with the grain” and “reading against the grain” from David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky.1 We have found that these labels and their applications to reading have helped students become more active readers, and we want to introduce them to you, suggesting that you too may find them useful.

Although we are going to present these labels and ideas sequentially, when you are reading and writing, you will probably find that sometimes you will be reading “with the grain,” other times “against the grain.” In other words, there is not set order for doing this kind of reading. At time it happens sequentially; at other times a reading may require you to move between reading “with and against the grain.”

Reading to understand a text as an author likely intended it to be understood, seeing through a writer’s eyes, through his or her lens is reading “with the grain.” When you read “with the grain,” you are seeking to understand and author's point of view. You might imagine that you are walking along in dialogue with an author, considering and examining a text to come to terms with an author’s ideas as ways of thinking and seeing. Imagine a performance in which you are having a conversation with an author; you would give her point of view thoughtful consideration, trying to see as you think she would see. In this conversation, you want to make a text live, giving attention to the terms the author uses, looking closely at the words, themes, ideas, images, point of view, or plot of a text. Your goal in reading “with the grain” is to experience as much as possible as the author likely intended; even if you disagree, this is the time to work with an author. A thoughtful, careful reading of a text is important.

A good author chooses her words carefully, working with care to convey meaning to her readers. Reading carelessly might cause you to create a poor or incomplete reading. The readings in college courses are complex; you will not only encounter complex academic texts, but also texts that use satire and/or humor, subtle ways of writing that require careful, thoughtful reading to fully understand. All these texts rely on carefully chosen words, tone, and style to convey meaning and provide clues about the author’s likely intention.

“Reading with the grain” helps you to gain an understanding of a text and what an author is attempting to communicate. Before you can enact a fully developed critique of a text, your must first come to terms with it and understand it as thoroughly as possible. A good reader moves from reading a text “with the grain” to reading “against the grain.” As you read “against the grain,” you again enact a text with the writer, walking alongside her, questioning, exploring, and closely examining her points, ideas, ways of seeing and articulating her ideas. You seek our contradictions, silences, and faulty logic of the text. You begin to ask question: What does this text tell me about the author, about the author's ideas, biases? What has the author left unsaid? Why? What cultural stance does the author reflect? What does this tell me? What are the limits of the text? What do those limits suggest?

You are no longer looking through an author’s lens. Your enactment is pushing “against the grain” of what an author has written. Now you try on many lenses, many ways of reading, seeing, interpreting, and thinking about a text. Imagine that you are in a disagreement with an author. How might she respond? What ways can you envision her answering your questions? What would her performance be? Think of yourself as an expert, questioning, pushing, and testing for inconsistencies and ambiguities.

In some ways this is very idealistic because you might find that you identify so closely with an essay that it is difficult for you to read “against the grain,” but to become a strong reader, you need to learn to read “against the grain” of a text, even those you like and admire. On the other hand, you might find an essay that you react to negatively, finding yourself in strong disagreement with it. You might find it very difficult to read “with the grain” of an essay or story; yet, we would ask you to voice and work through your objections, disagreements, and frustrations, so you can approach a text to read “with the grain.” You cannot develop an effective and complete “against the grain” until you have a clear understanding of what you think are the author’s intentions and point of view. Thus reading both “with and against the grain” enable you to fully engage with a text and an author’s ideas, moving toward developing your own reading. Keep in mind that at times you may find reading “with and against the grain” difficult or seemingly impossible, but the rewards for you are abundant as you become a stronger reader, writer, and thinker.

As a final note, bear in mind that reading with and against the grain is not meant to be implemented in a systematic manner. It is not necessary to initially read every text with the grain and then follow-up by reading it against the grain. At times, you may find yourself fluctuating between reading with and against the grain. This is a normal occurrence for strong reader. Remember, these styles should be used to provoke your thinking process as you read.

Ways of Reading. 3rd. ed. Eds. David Bartholomae and Anthonly Petrosky. Boston, MA: St. Martins Press, 1993.

Breaking Boundaries. 2000. Comfort, Carol. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458.

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