On Reading-Part III: Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind, Part 2-The Plan
In The Well-Educated Mind, Susan Bauer describes three levels of inquiry for reading literature. They are based on her reinterpretation of the medieval trivium. The trivium includes the study of grammar, logic and rhetoric. Bauer places them in a sequence: the Grammar stage, devoted to basic mechanics, the Logic stage, where you build an understanding of the purpose, direction and argument and finally the Rhetoric stage, where you form and express your own ideas and reactions. I find her reformulation makes this antiquarian program seem relevant and useful. In general this could be an excellent framework for just about any endeavor.
While it is generally a good idea, I think it begins to weaken in her specific application. The questions she provides for each level are somewhat limiting and prevents the full experience of a book that one might otherwise have.
Her questions for the Grammar stage are focused on the details of keeping track of the characters and the plot. Who are these people? What happens to them? How are they different at the end? So far so good. We really can do nothing if we do not get this information right.
The Logic stage looks for the ideas at the core of the book. Do I feel, see, hear this other world? Can I sympathize with the people who live there? Do I understand their wants and desires and problems? I think this is where she starts to go astray, focusing too heavily on the emotional. She seems more concerned with how the reader relates and reacts to the characters and less on how the characters relate to each other and their environment.
There is not a relatable character in all of Camus’ The Stranger, Celine’s North, Brecht’s Three Penny Novel, and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Trying too hard to sympathize with these characters will lead us in the wrong direction. What makes the characters alien and disagreeable is the basis for understanding these works. Even Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary occasionally require some distance to fully appreciate them as literary characters. There are just too many things we are likely to miss from a purely emotional response.
The Rhetoric stage is where you decided if you agree with the author. Is this book an accurate portrayal of life? Is it true? And again, Do you sympathize with the characters? Which ones and why? What is her take on the human condition? Is there an argument? Do you agree? Sadly, these are not much different from her Logic stage questions.
We again have the issue of sympathizing with characters, too often an excuse for not thinking about a book. And while asking if something is accurate or true might lead on form some interesting ideas, Bauer seems to confuse literature with science or journalism by implying that a better writer is a more accurate one. Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantegreul, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Cervantes’ Don Quixote are hardly what anyone would call accurate portrayals of life. And good luck finding truth in Duras’ The Lover, Robbe-Grillet’s Voyeur or Nabokov’s Lolita. They are, however, all excellent works of literature that have important and challenging things to say to us.
I think her intention is good and there is some merit in her basic framework. I think she tends to fall short on the details of her execution. Not that this is an easy thing to do. Reading books well is very different for each individual. Providing basic guidelines that are helpful sparks to creative reading without becoming stale, mechanical or restrictive is a challenge. Next, I will try offer an alternative approach that I hope would be easier and more fruitful for beginners, but still useful and less restrictive for experience readers.