GRE Reading Comprehension Sample Questions

Billie Holiday died a few weeks ago. I have been unable until now to write about her, but since she will survive many who receive longer obituaries, a short delay in one small appreciation will not harm her or us. When she died we – the musicians, critics, all who were ever transfixed by the most heart-rending voice of the past generation – grieved bitterly. There was no reason to. Few people pursued self-destruction more whole-heartedly than she, and when the pursuit was at an end, at the age of forty-four, she had turned herself into a physical and artistic wreck. Some of us tried gallantly to pretend otherwise, taking comfort in the occasional moments when she still sounded like a ravaged echo of her greatness. Others had not even the heart to see and listen any more. We preferred to stay home and, if old and lucky enough to own the incomparable records of her heyday from 1937 to 1946, many of which are not even available on British LP, to recreate those coarse-textured, sinuous, sensual and unbearable sad noises which gave her a sure corner of immortality. Her physical death called, if anything, for relief rather than sorrow. What sort of middle age would she have faced without the voice to earn money for her drinks and fixes, without the looks ‘and in her day she was hauntingly beautiful’ to attract the men she needed, without business sense, without anything but the disinterested worship of ageing men who had heard and seen her in her glory?

And yet, irrational though it is, our grief expressed Billie Holiday’s art, that of a woman for whom one must be sorry. The great blues singers, to whom she may be justly compared, played their game from strength. Lionesses, though often wounded or at bay (did not Bessie Smith call herself ‘a tiger, ready to jump’?) their tragic equivalents were Cleopatra and Phaedra; Holiday’s was an embittered Ophelia. She was the Puccini heroine among blues singers, or rather among jazz singers, for though she sang a cabaret version of the blues incomparably, her natural idiom was the pop song. Her unique achievement was to have twisted this into a genuine expression of the major passions by means of a total disregard of its sugary tunes, or indeed of any tune other than her own few delicately crying elongated notes, phrased like Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong in sung in a thin, gritty, haunting voice whose natural mood was an unresigned and voluptuous welcome for the pains of love. Nobody has sung, or will sing, Bess’s songs from Porgy as she did. It was this combination of bitterness and physical submission, as of someone lying still while watching his legs amputated which gives such a blood-curding quality to her song, Strange Fruit, the anti-lynching poem which she turned into an unforgettable art song. Suffering was her profession; but she did not accept it.



Little need be said about her horrifying life, which she described with emotional, though hardly with factual, truth in her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues. After an adolescence in which self-respect was measured by a girl’s insistence on picking up the coins thrown to her by clients with her hands, she was plainly beyond help. She did not lack it, for she had the flair and scrupulous honesty of John Hammond to launch her, the best musicians of the 1930s to accompany her, notably Teddy Wilson, Frankie Newton and Lester Young, the boundless devotion of all serious connoisseurs, and much public success. It was too late to arrest a career of systematic embittered self-immolation. To be born with both beauty and self-respect in the Negro ghetto of Baltimore in 1951 was too much of a handicap, even without rape at the age of ten and drug-addiction in her teens. But, while she destroyed herself, she sang, unmelodious, profound and heartbreaking. It is impossible not to weep for her, or not to hate the world which made her what she was.


Question 1

What is the main focus of the passage?

A)To find the reasons behind Billie Holiday’s death.

B)The passage tells how Billie Holiday’s death is not grieved by anyone.

C)The passage is an appreciation of Billie Holliday’s life and achievements as a singer.

D)To give an account of her struggle as a singer.

E)To describe Billie Holiday’s wrecked life, by giving an account of her rise as well as her destruction.

Answer: E

Answer explanation: The passage revolves around Billie Holliday’s ravaged existence after the decline of her career as a singer and her consequent death. Thus, option E is the most appropriate answer. We reject A since the writer mentions her death as a result of self-destruction, and does not dwell any further on it. Option B refers to a part of the passage where the writer mentions that no one had the heart to see or listen to her and she had subjected herself to self-destruction. However, the passage moves on to her life and her unique art. Thus, we reject it. Similarly, option C is also a part of the passage and other than her appreciation as a singer, the passage focuses on her ravaged existence as well. D is obviously wrong since the passage does not discuss her struggle, rather according to it, she was fortunate to be launched and be among the best singers.

Question 2

What according to the writer was the cause of her death?

A)She died by committing suicide since she was not happy with her downfall as a singer.

B)She was forced to death by other singers.

C)She indulged in ruining her life by giving herself up to drugs and drinks when her career as a singer was on a decline.

D)She had an overdose of drugs, which became toxic.

E)She was suffering from some illness.

Answer: C

Answer explanation: Option B is obviously wrong, as there is no mention of her being forced to death. Similarly the passage has no mention of her being ill, which makes us conclude that option E is also false. We reject option A on grounds of its referring to her death as a suicide. Although the writer mentions self-destruction, he refers to it as an effort to ruin her life by indulging in drinks and drugs, and not by committing suicide. We reject D since it mentions that an overdose of drugs was the reason of her death. However, it was not an overdose, but a result of gradual and persistent habit of drugs and drinks. Thus, we conclude that C is the best answer.

Question 3

What cannot be understood from the last paragraph of the passage?

A)Her career was launched by reliable and accomplished producers.

B)She was praised for her art equally by expert judges as well as people.

C)In her autobiography, she described her life with sentimental and passionate truth.

D)She was gifted with good looks.

E)Her style of music was different from others in terms of the treatment of tunes.

Answer: E

Answer explanation: Option E is the correct answer since it is not described in the last paragraph but the second paragraph, where the writer mentions about her unique achievements of twisting the usual tunes and a total disregard of its sugary tunes. All the other options have a mention in the last paragraph, and thus are rejected. The writer says that she had the flair and honesty of John Hammond to launch her. Thus, we reject A. Similarly, B is mentioned in the paragraph where the writer says that she did not lack devotion of connoisseurs, and much public success. The writer’s first line of the paragraph refers to her autobiography as an emotional truth. Further, in the passage the writer also says that she was born with beauty, thus option D is also proved as a wrong answer.

Question 4

Provide a suitable title for the passage.

A)Billie Holiday: Wreckage of a Great Singer

B)Billie Holiday: A Great Singer

C)Billie Holiday: A Lost Talent

D)Billie Holiday: End of an Era

E)Billie Holiday: A Singer of the Blues

Answer: A

Answer explanation: A is the correct answer since the passage is an account of Billie Holiday’s rise as well as fall as a singer, her ravaged life and her consequent death. Thus, the option A covers the topic well. B is rejected since the passage refers to her glorious days of fame in the past and talks of her ruined life. Option C proposes a title that suggests the loss of a great singer. However, according to the passage, she was no more artistic as she had been earlier, and her death does not affect the world of music. Similarly, option D suggests that an era ended with the death of Billie, but there is no suggestion in the passage that her death has ended any period in the music world. Option E is a part of the passage and does not tell us anything more about the passage, other than about her style of singing. Thus, it is also rejected.

Question 5

Which of the following statements is beyond the scope of the passage?

A)Billie Holiday would be remembered more than other persons who have long obituaries written about them.

B)Pain, bitterness and surrender were reflected in Billie’s voice.

C)Billie did not have the money to buy her drinks, which led her to depression and isolation.

D)Billie had not accepted pain, sorrow and suffering present in her profession.

E)Billie had lost her money as well as looks.

Answer: C

Answer explanation: Option C is beyond the scope of the passage since it is not mentioned in the passage. The passage surely mentions that she did not have the money to buy drinks (and had lost her looks, proving E as a wrong answer), but it does not mention her isolating herself due to depression. This is an overstated option. Option A is mentioned in the beginning of the passage by the writer when he mentions that she will survive many who receive longer obituaries. The statement in option B is rejected since it is also within the scope of the passage as the writer mentions that her style was a combination of bitterness and physical submission. Option D is also taken from the passage when the writer says that suffering was her profession but she did not accept it. Thus, we reject this option as well.

Question 6

According to the writer, why is her death a comfort more than a grievance?

A)Because she was an intolerable singer.

B)Because otherwise she would have had a miserable and ruined life.

C)Because she was a failure in life.

D)Because she was a competition for other singers.

E)Because she had no one to mourn her death.

Answer: B

Answer explanation: Option B is the most suitable answer. We come to this conclusion by the writer’s views expressed in the first paragraph. The writer expresses doubts of her leading a comfortable life without her talent, money and looks. Option A is rejected since, tough the writer holds that lately she did not sing as well as she sang in her yesteryears, he does not mention this as a reason of her death being a source of comfort. Options D and E are obviously wrong and have no mention in the passage. Option C is also not a satisfactory answer, since her failure in life does not mean that she would not be grieved. It does not suggest why her death would be a relief.

Question 7

How can the passage best be described?

A)It is a tribute.

B)It is an obituary.

C)It is an ode.

D)It is a critical analysis.

E)None of the above.

Answer: E

Answer explanation: A tribute refers to a statement or account of admiration of a person in order to show respect to him, especially after death. We cannot call this passage a tribute since along with appreciation it also refers to Billie Holiday as an ‘artistic wreck’. Thus we reject A. We reject B since an obituary is a notice or announcement of someone’s death along with his achievements in life for the purpose of printing in the newspaper soon after the death. However, this passage is not in the form of a notice and the writer also mentions his delay in writing about her after a few weeks of her death. The passage is definitely not an ode, as an ode is essentially a poem dedicated to someone, thus we reject option C. The writer does not analyze Billie Holiday’s work critically, but is a general article about her life and existence. Thus, we reject D as well. Thus, we conclude that option E is the best answer since all the above options stand rejected.

Question 8

What is the antonym of the word ‘scrupulous’ mentioned in the passage?






Answer: D

Answer explanation: The word ‘scrupulous’ means careful about paying attention to every detail. In the passage it refers to the nature and character of John Hammond who launches Billie Holiday in her career. Although the most acceptable opposite is unscrupulous, it is not given as an option. Thus, we conclude that option D is the most appropriate answer. Option A is a synonym of the given word. The other adjectives given as options B, C and E are not related to the main word and thus are rejected as the probable answer.

GRE Reading Comprehension Sample Questions


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