Reading Literature: The One Right Way

The wise and wonderful Sally Thomas writing about how we read literature said some things which resonated with me today:



“The bottom line is that it is OK to enjoy a story AS a story. You don’t have to get the Catholic symbolism to appreciate Lord of the Rings and to have a deep relationship with it, for example. You don’t have to read Narnia thinking “Aslan=Jesus.” In fact, you might enjoy the story more deeply and personally and with more emotional complexity than if you have that equation always in mind (because it closes the door to other observations).”

“I also stress that you don’t HAVE to think about anything to observe, enjoy, and “understand” that painting. You’re not *not getting it* if you don’t think about those things. Yes, there may be resonances of meaning present, and asking, “What is that thing doing there? Why does X happen?” may lead you to consider those resonances and enjoy them. But you’re not locked out of the secret of the painting (or the work of literature) if you don’t hear the resonances.”




I wanted to ponder those thoughts some more and tease out a few ideas. That’s what blogging is for. 



Once a friend told me that she loved, loved, loved Narnia as a child but then came to hate it when she learned it was “really about Jesus.” I think she felt like the narrow allegorical interpretation squashed out what she loved about the novels.

I have also known many people who hate poetry mainly because it makes them feel stupid; well-meaning teachers had impressed on them the idea of a hidden meaning that they just didn’t see. Well if that’s what it really means, then I guess I don’t get poetry! Whenever I meet someone who hates poetry I can’t help but wonder if there was a time that they loved poetry, or could have if it hadn’t been treated like a puzzle or an exam or a trick instead of an object to be enjoyed at whatever level or in whatever way they found to enjoy it.

It’s like taking my kids to the beach. Some want to spend the entire time frolicking in the waves, and some want to stay out of the water altogether and comb the beach for pretty shells. Some want to spend the time building an enormous sandcastle. Some want to flit back and forth among several activities. There are people who just want to sit on a towel and read their book. And some days I just want to take hundreds of photos. Or sketch. Or nap. What if you were told that only one of those activities was the right and proper way to enjoy the beach? If you tell someone either directly– or even imply indirectly by the way you talk about beach-going— that only one of those activities is the proper way to enjoy the beach and the others are wrong, then you risk ending up with a bunch of people who hate the beach. Or who think they hate the beach. But what they really hate are the strictures about How to Enjoy the Beach. And yet, that’s how we treat literature.

I think Seamus Heaney wrote about being taken to the beach as a child with a metal pail and trowel, farm implements, because why would you spend money on plastic stuff that breaks when you could buy something sturdy that has a real use on the farm after the beach day is done? Anyway, as I recall the anecdote, as a child he felt shame and resentment and agony about how his beach experience didn’t match up with what the beach was “supposed” to look like.

And I think we do that with literature. We create the ideal experience in our minds and when the way we read and understand a work doesn’t match the way other readers read and understand it, we think we’re doing it wrong. Especially if the “other reader” is the teacher whose job it is to tell you the one right way to do things. 

One gift my college and grad school experiences gave me was the freedom to argue against other critics, to read literature “wrongly.” As a teacher I want to give that confidence to children in some way. If Narnia is more enjoyable without knowing that it can be read as an allegory, maybe that’s preferable. I suspect Lewis would think so.



Not, of course, that you can ready *any* meaning into any work. A good reading is based in the text and can be supported by pointing to passages in the actual work. A bad reading ignores the text and reads it willy-nilly as saying whatever the reader wants it to say. But my own observations of groups of people all involved in careful close reading often reveals that good careful readers will come to different conclusions about the same text. And that’s good and proper. Coleridge said (though I can no longer find where he said it, I am reasonably sure that it came from him) that a symbol is an inexhaustible well of meaning. We come to the well and draw up the draft we need. And literature is a magical well where one persons draught tastes like cherry cordial and another person’s tastes like coffee and another person’s tastes like turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

There is no one right way to enjoy the beach. A beach day can be sunny or it can be rainy. Or even snowy, there’s nothing quite so lovely as the beach in snow. You can enjoy the beach barefoot or wearing boots. You can swim or stay dry. You can look at it through the lens of a camera and there is nothing at all wrong with that. Or you can look at it through the lens of a baby experiencing sand and waves for the very first time. You can catalogue the flora and fauna or use the shells and feathers to decorate a sandcastle. A poem is just like that. It’s an experience and there’s not one right way to have an experience.

One Response to Reading Literature: The One Right Way

  1. Marti Booker September 15, 2017 at 7:02 pm #

    I think it’s a shame how all our educational institutions have made poetry and literature into this onerous burden that people are afraid to take up. So many people think they should magically know all these things before they can read a book. No, that’s what the footnotes are for! If homeschooling does anything for my kids, I hope it makes them confident in their ability to read things on their own terms– no fear, no shame, no embarrassment in being unable to “get” the secret messages. People lose out on so many ripping good stories when they’re taught that books are all secrets and symbols. Bleh.

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