(Update: oops, it published before I meant for it to. Sorry about that for those of you on feeds.)
I was thinking about critical thinking today, and thinking about reading literature. I was thinking about literary criticism, and about reading a book and coming to your own conclusions first. And I was thinking about homeschooling my kids through high school using great literature, and how to utilize literary commentaries, and whether we should touch them at all.
I came to the conclusion that the best way to handle critical thinking about literature is to read the book yourself, first. Think about it, interact with it by jotting down notes, thoughts, little narrations. Don't look at the commentaries yet. If the book is so difficult you cannot get past the thought that it is so difficult, write that down.
(Write that down, write that down-- where is the man with the paper?)
What thoughts is the book bringing up in you? How does this jibe with what you already know of truth? What connections are being made within you, between this book and other books, or experiences you have had in life?
Do you need to look up some Scripture? Do that. And write it down.
(Where is the man with the paper?)
Think a little more. Reread some parts. Decide what you think.
After you have decided, or at least once you cannot think about it effectively anymore, then pick up a commentary and read someone else's thoughts about the book. And read another commentary. And maybe another one. Are they all saying the same thing? What do you think about it?
Do you need to look up some Scripture? Do it now. Write down your notes.
Don't be afraid to admit that you think the Emperor has no clothes on. Perhaps he hasn't. Or perhaps there are subtleties you don't understand yet. But a great deal of commentary is sound and fury signifying nothing, so don't just accept it without thinking hard. What is the background and history of the person writing the commentary? Does he or she have an agenda, or is he or she fairly balanced?
Talk about the book with others who have read it. What do they think? Do they have viewpoints that are different from yours? Different from the commentaries and study guides? Have you missed some side of the mountain?
Put the book aside for awhile. Let it simmer in your mind. Read something else.
Come back later (maybe a year or two later) and read it again. What do you think now?
(I don't think I would start this before at least 7th grade, perhaps not until high school. Before that time, just reading and narrating is best, I think, and maybe some listmaking, compare/contrast, and notetaking, perhaps.)
(Also, I am no expert. These are just my own flawed thoughts.)