Book 50: The Art of X-Ray Reading – Roy Peter Clark

X-ray reading is Roy Peter Clark’s term to describe the close reading and study of a text. In this title he explores excerpts from 25 famous texts and shares his analysis. Early on he makes his case for x-ray reading:

Literature, real literature, must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain—the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed—then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flavor will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.

The Art of X-ray Reading – Roy Peter Clark

I initially had the idea of reading each cited novel before beginning each chapter. This seemed liked the best way to get the most out the book. My plan started well, reading the first book, The Great Gatsby, before starting chapter one. Like many good plans this idea was soon abandoned. The reality of reading each of the book mentioned was a little overambitious and in the end the supplied excerpts were sufficient to follow Clark’s thinking.

For students of writing there’s a whole lot here, including clear point by point lessons ending the discussion and analysis of each chapter. For those with literary aspirations, this title could be something a practical workbook. There is an academic leaning here of course, but despite that, the text isn’t dry and Clark does a fairly good job in making these entries accessible to the casual reader. On a few occasions the details began to overwhelm but on balance these studies were interesting and well put together.

Generally, I found the idea of x-ray reading to be an interesting one. In these days of haste, this book invites us to explore the dimensions of the literature we love — to pause— and to reflect on the beauty of language that lies just below the surface.

Clark ends with the 12 steps that will get you started with X-ray reading:


1. Begin with your routine habits, reading for information or the experience of story.

2. Look for passages that make you stop, not because they are bad but because they are so good that you want to enjoy and appreciate them.

3. Read these “showstopper” passages again, this time more slowly.

4. Look for the part of the passage you like best: it could be a paragraph, a sentence, a metaphor, even a word.

5. Read that part again, this time aloud. If there is another person in the room, read it aloud to that person.

6. If the passage comes from a book or magazine, mark it with a pencil, then write some words or phrases in the margins that describe what interests you.

7. Ask yourself, out loud if it helps, “How did the writer do this?”

8. Put on your metaphorical X-ray glasses and see if you can answer that question.

9. If you are having trouble coming up with an answer, share the passage with friends, colleagues, teachers.

10. Duplicate the passage—you may even want to copy it by hand to get a feel for it—and save it in a journal or file.

11. Put the passage away and begin your own writing. You don’t need to imitate the model text. It’s better if the influence is indirect.

12. If you discover a technique or strategy not mentioned in this book, add it to your copy of The Art of X-ray Reading.


3 thoughts on “Book 50: The Art of X-Ray Reading – Roy Peter Clark

  1. Love this. I’ve been an x-ray reader for some time now but this year I realized how much I was slacking – nothing like teaching lit to young adults to make you take a serious second or third look at novels. Now, I need to just keep this up without a student and apply it to everyday reading. This book looks like a great next step. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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