I love books. Love books. But I've never really considered before how I read them.
A friend of mine, also a writer, reads very deliberately, a book in one hand, a pencil in the other. She dissects pages, paragraphs, sentences. She analyzes word choice and sentence progression. When I hear her talk about her reading process, I marvel. I don't read this way. Not with novels, at least.
I do analyze short stories. They're short, you see, and I can hold their entirety in my head. Taking a pencil to a short story like a surgeon wields a scalpel isn't as daunting as my friend's novel dissections. With a short story, I typically read it through once for pleasure and a second time (or more) to figure out what the author did and how.
When that happens, then I'll go back (either in that moment or later, if the story is too gripping to put down) and look at how the author worked his or her magic. That's what reading is for me: a kind of magic. I really have no agenda other than to be swept up and carried away.
Most of the time the gasp comes from the events of the story itself. A recent scene that took my breath away was in Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I don't want to give any spoilers, so I'll just sum it up with two words: water bucket. Wow. That gave me goosebumps. I literally gasped. Then I set the book down in my lap and took a minute to contemplate the event, its impact on the story and on me as a reader.
Sometimes, though, the gasp is over a technique an author used. I'm currently reading The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, and came across a passage that wowed me as a writer. (I can expound on this one without fear of giving anything away.) The protagonist tells a story to his friends, and the story is given its own chapter. During the telling, the protagonist's friends interrupt, asking questions and arguing a finer point of the story. Rothfuss handles their intrusion with several lines of italicized, unattributed, quotation-marks free dialogue. In a simple, unobtrusive way, the reader is reminded that the chapter is the telling of a story within a story (within another story, actually), as well as reminded that there are people other than the reader "listening" the tale, and that those others have their own opinions, questions, reactions. It's brilliant. It impressed me in a different way than the passage from Ocean at the End of the Lane, but it impressed me nonetheless. As a writer, I learned from that reading.
Sometimes I wonder if I should slow down and analyze books deliberately, like my friend does. My writing would probably benefit from such study, as I'm sure hers has (her writing is gorgeous!). My fear, though, is that my joy of reading would suffer, and that just isn't something I'm willing to sacrifice. Reading for exhilaration, relying on the Gasp Method, may not be the most scientific way of reading, but I've found it's what works for me.