On Reading-Part IV: An Alterantive Plan
I recently reviewed Susan Bauer’s classics-reading program from her book The Well-Educated Mind. For the most part I like the general idea of her project but feel it falls short on the details of putting it into practice. Here, as promised, I’ll try to outline a somewhat different approach that I hope will be at least as helpful and perhaps improve upon some of the places where I think Bauer could do better.
We have a natural tendency to focus on characters we like or are like us, problems or situations that are familiar and we can relate to. We get emotionally involved in a good story and forget to think or enjoy being entertained so much that we are not informed or challenged. But literature is not a popularity contest. There are characters that are not going to be our friends and there is at least as much to learn from them. Hopefully these simple tools will help us to break free of these habits that limit our interaction with great literature.
In general we are looking to answer the following kinds of questions: What is going on? What is the author trying to tell me? What is the point of all this? Why should anyone bother to read the book? These questions are looking at moral, social or philosophical issues and not details of plot and action. Plot summaries are useful, but they only clarify the details. The answers to these questions are more flexible and open to individual understanding, which is what makes them so interesting. To answer them well, I think it is helpful to break them down into smaller groups of more focused and particular questions. The groups I typically use are 1) Plot and Character, 2) Form and Style, and 3) Historical and Literary Context.
1. Plot and Character-The World in the Work
The first place to begin is probably the most obvious and most natural. We have been looking at plots and characters since we heard our first bedtime stories as children. Who are the characters? What do they do? What happens to them? These are all intuitive questions we can hardly keep ourselves from asking when reading a book. All too often we stop there, or think only in terms of do we like them or are they similar to us. Often it is more important how they are different from us, or from the other characters. Do they represent different points of view or values? How do these point of view react or respond to similar situations or events? What can we make of these differences? What might this mean? Why is the author doing this?
2.. Form and Style-The World of the Work
Next we look at style. This is made up of the sentences, paragraphs, word choice, grammar, etc. that the author has used in constructing his book. It can vary a great deal and these differences can tell us something. This is not just a writer showing off a virtuosic technique. It tells us something about what is going on, how it feels and what frame of mind we should bring to the writer, book and particular passage.
Formal traditions are often associated with certain kinds of ideas. The epic has authority, of history, of a single omniscient narrator, of the gods even. A sonnet is traditionally used to express two related or contrasting views on an object or idea, often related to love.
It is important to understand what the form is and how is similar or different from other writers who have used it. Adapting, changing, working within those forms also makes a commentary on that formal tradition and the ideas, and writers, associated. Yes, this will require a small bit of effort at first, but nothing a few minutes with Wikipeadia won’t solve and you’ll get so more out of your hours of reading that I can hardly imagine not doing it.
3. Historical and Literary Context-The World around the Work
Finally it is useful to look at the context of the work. Every great book has something to about three different time periods: the period in which it is set, the period in which it is written and the period in which it is read. In setting a story in a particular time the author lets us know he has something to say about this era. The author can hardly help but writing about thing relevant to his own time. If a writer is worth reading, then he will also have something to say to a reader, in his own time. It is easy to get involved in a story and think only of the time in which it is set. But thinking about what it means to a reader today, and perhaps most challenging as it is most distant, what it might have meant to a reader at the time it was written will greatly enhance your understanding, perspective and insight into a book.
In addition all classic books are participants in what Mortimer Adler has called the Great Conversation. What he is referring to is the long conversation of culture, over the centuries. Here is a brief outline of how that conversation might work. Homer, a poet or group of poets working in an oral tradition, composed the epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. Aristotle continues that conversation in The Poetics by writing about the nature and purpose of epic poetry. Virgil modifies that oral epic tradition to create a formal written mythology supporting the Roman Empire. Milton further elaborates the formal, written secondary epic and uses it to describe spiritual and supernatural rather than martial and corporeal conflict. Joyce transforms the Odysseus, a poem of heroes and heroic actions, into a prose narrative about an ordinary day of an ordinary man in Dublin. Derek Walcott’s long poem of the disenfranchised victims of colonialism provides a counterpoint to martial heroism of earlier epics. Its many layered voices provide a contrast to the single divinely-inspired narrator of the Homeric epics. Each writer has made a contribution to this ongoing conversation, using similar or contrasting form, style, plot and characters to make a commentary on other writers and their culture and values.
In many ways it could be thought of an extension of what Harold Bloom has called the Anxiety of Influence. Every writer, when they are young is influenced by some writer or writers that he enjoys, appreciates and has something in common. Many writers are unable to break free from this influence and spend their lives writing works that continue this tradition. Other writers, Bloom calls them Strong writers or poets find a way to overcome and move beyond this influence. They are able to create something new and original, that no longer imitates or is subservient to the works they admire. We can ask questions like: What works or authors or similar? How are they different? Do they imitate or parody other works? Are they working within a tradition or breaking free from it? What do you perceive as their anxiety of influence? What has this writer contributed to that Great Conversation?
Putting it all together
Finally we need to put it all together and think about how our understanding of Plot and Character, Form and Style, Historical and Literary Context come together to help us form opinions about the general moral, social and philosophical questions we set out to answer. How do the answers to the previous three sections inform and reflect upon each other? What does this add up to? What is the author trying to say (or saying without trying)? What is the purpose or meaning (or a purpose or meaning–as the best texts have multiple meanings)? There may or may not be clear answers to all or any of these questions. Sometimes the answers to these questions will change over time as our ideas or situation changes. But thinking about them brings us into a deeper conversation with the book. A conversation that often can last years or a lifetime.
The Abraham and Isaac story in Genesis, Bhagavad-Gita section of The Mahabharata, the Fairy Tale in Goethe’s Conversations with German Refugees have all been interpreted in many different ways over the years. Hamlet, Faust, Paradise Lost, Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace are full of ideas, events and characters that are in conflict. We will see them differently and perhaps take different sides and learn different lessons each time we read them. We will see something different, something we might have missed before, or new things in our life will cause us to see new things or perspectives in the old stories.
These tools are really a starting place, not a end of interpretation. Having established these basic ideas allows ones imagination to flow more freely, see things one might have missed. One could form some good ideas about a book with these basic steps but with practice and experience they will hopefully be merely the first steps toward more creative, wide-ranging and divergent interpretations. I hope these might be an improvement over Bauer’s approach and would love to hear what people think if the get a chance to use them in practice.
Having modified Susan Bauer’s Plan, her approach for thinking about reading classics I thought I would also take a look at how I might also adjust Bauer’s List, her suggested classics that one should read. That will be the topic for my next post.
For anyone that is interested, I’m also quite fond of the approach used by Rohan Maitzen. You can find her approach outlined in these amusing and delightful posts on her blog:
- On Reading-Part III: Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind, Part 2-The Plan (severalfourmany.wordpress.com)
- On Shop Novels, Past and Present (vol1brooklyn.com)