What the Book Really Means

Sometimes reading is a risky business. It requires good safety gear.

Sometimes reading is a risky business. It requires good safety gear. And maybe a deconstructed penguin or two

Deconstructing Penguins: What the book’s Really about


Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading
by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone is a well-intentioned book about how to read fiction with children that rubbed me the wrong way from beginning to end because, as much as there is that it gets right about how to talk about literature with kids, it gets one thing fundamentally wrong, and that might be the most important thing of all.

Take this sentence from the first chapter: “Books are like puzzles. . . the author’s ideas are hidden and it is up to all of us to figure them out. Whenever you read a book you want to know what the book is really about, not what it’s about on the surface, not the story, but what’s underneath the story…”

I hate and detest this approach to reading fiction with kids, (with adults too, with readers of any age, really, but especially I hate foisting this idea upon kids who are too young to question it). It is fundamentally untrue that a book is a puzzle and that ideas are hidden and have to be ferreted out. Ideas might not be obvious, but that’s not the same thing as hidden. It’s an oversimplified explanation meant to introduce children to the ideas of themes and symbolism, but which fails to understand what these themes and symbols really are: not a secret meaning hidden by the author for enterprising detectives to pry out of a book, but the way in which a well-written story speaks to us about universal human experiences and meanings and helps us to discover that we are immortal because we have, as William Faulkner says in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

William Faulkner called these universal experiences “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.” And that strikes me as one of the best and truest formulations. They aren’t “hidden meanings” but embodiments of truth that make a story live and breathe and take root in our hearts.

Every Book is a Mystery

Every book is a mystery, the Gladstones declare “It’s your job to figure out what the author is really trying to say. When you do, you’ll know what the book is about.” That’s an absolutely terrible way to go about reading fiction. There is no “what the author is really trying to say,” there is merely story. What the author is really trying to do is tell a story. And if he or she tells an especially good one and excels at the craft of writing, then the story will be deep and rich and meaningful to the reader. But we discover that meaning by living the story and, yes, talking about the story with others can be a part of the journey of discovery, but we aren’t in search of a some hidden McGuffin, we are exploring and admiring and sharing our discoveries. Coleridge says a symbol is an inexhaustible well of meaning. If that’s true of a single symbol, how much more true is it of the meaning of a complex work like a novel? To imply that there is one and only one meaning hidden in a novel is to impoverish the reading experience and to turn what should be the beginning of a great love affair into a silly parlor game.

I kept waiting for them to say, “Just kidding,” or to explain that this was their first fumbling attempt, but they soon learned better, but no, this is really how they think books should be read.

It’s not all terrible; the authors explain that “there can sometimes be more than one theory of a crime. Book interpretations are subjective. After all, no one was actually sitting in the room with the author. The only rule is that an explanation must be consistent with facts. A group may come up with two perfectly logical but utterly incompatible theories of what the book is really about.”

Here again the mystery analogy fails them. The idea of a mystery implies there is one true answer and one false. There is a real solution to a mystery, even if the detective never finds it. Both theories cannot be true. But that’s not true with reading fiction. The reason two people can come up with different incompatible readings of a work isn’t because neither of them has access to the author’s brain. Even if the author were there with your book club to tell you what she thinks her book means, that’s only one reader’s reading. Because once the book is published, the author is only one more reader. A privileged reader who has more insights into the process of writing. But the meaning of a book is not purely the creation of the author. It’s not a finite thing that can be defined and grasped. Meaning is not merely subjective, either. Meaning is the interaction of the reader with the text.

I do think that a good novel is a mystery, but a mystery in the same way that a sunset is a mystery or a rose or a painting. No one asks what a sunset means or a rose. The proper response to a sunset is wonder and awe.

It is true that, as they say, it is a good lesson “to learn that other people may see things differently and still make sense.” But their dominant metaphor for reading: being a detective, fails to account for why people have different readings of a text. It is a shallow and flimsy way of thinking about reading and thinking about literature.

How Authors Construct Meaning

At several points Deconstructing Penguins briefly examines the process of writing from the writer’s point of view. Getting children to think about how and why the author writes is generally an admirable goal. But from how the authors discuss the role of the novelist, it seems to me they fundamentally do not understand either the how or the why of the composition of fiction.

“The first thing an author usually does is to decide what he or she wants to write about. This will create the underlying theme of the book. For example, an author may decide to examine the concept of loyalty, or discuss the nature of real courage. Others may choose an underlying theme with political connotations or simply how to deal with personal challenges such as peer pressure.”

No, no, no, no, no.

A good writer starts with a story, a character, a plot, an image. Theme develops organically from the story, not the story from the theme. A story which begins with a theme or message is usually a terrible story and not worth reading.

“Once an author has decided what to write about, he or she must them choose a plot, characters, and setting to best convey that message to the reader.”

The primary purpose for a story is to be a story. Stories are not vehicles for messages like ad-boards on buses or commercials on television. And I think children who already love to read already understand this and children who don’t yet love to read need to come to understand this. We read not primarily for the message but for the pleasure of the story. When you imply that they are mistaken about the nature of story, when you tell them that their pleasure is missing the point, you discount their experience needlessly and risk making the reading group or classroom into an adversarial experience. Digging for meaning is a great pleasure for readers as long as it’s not seen as a goal that’s in conflict with reading for pleasure. The two go hand in hand, it’s not either this or that.

“The highlight of almost any discussion is the discovery of what the author has implanted at the core of the book. Peeling away each layer—character, setting, conflict— and finally seeing the truth is probably the most satisfying aspect of reading. It helps, of course, if the author, has been clever in concealment.”

Meaning isn’t implanted, it’s organic. It’s not a buried treasure you uncover, hidden in a text like a chest hidden underground or like the heart of an onion revealed by peeling away layer after layer. Rather, meaning subsists in the structure of the novel, in who the characters are and in the challenges they face, in what they say and do and choose or fail to choose. Meaning isn’t “concealed” by the author, meaning is embodied in a text. And yes, discovering that meaning is incredibly satisfying; but, again, let’s be clear about what is being discovered and how we are discovering it. The author isn’t playing a game of hide and seek or cat and mouse. When a story speaks to us and we suddenly understand why it is that it does so, it’s a moment of meeting of minds, the reader suddenly seeing eye to eye with the author. It’s a process of self-discovery as we understand that the book embodies an understanding of the world that we can apprehend and enjoy.

Torture a Confession out of It

This brings me to one of my favorite poems by Billy Collins:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

See, there’s that phrase, “what it really means.” That’s why I flared up in such rage as soon as I saw it on page 9 of Deconstructing Penguins. Years ago Collins had already primed me to hate that phrase and to associate it with a certain kind of torturing of literature that I hated when I encountered it in English classrooms in school. And when I say that I hated torturing poems, you must not understand that as an antipathy either for poetry or for English classes. I went on to major in English in college and to get a Master’s degree in literature. I love poetry and I adore reciting poetry, memorizing poetry, talking about poetry, sharing poetry with friends, and, yes, analyzing poetry. But I do not love torturing poetry, which is what happens all too often in English classes.

Here’s the thing Collins doesn’t mention in his poem. The students are tying the poem to a chair and beating it not because that’s how kids naturally respond to poetry but because they have been taught by well-meaning instructors of English literature and well-meaning leaders of children’s book clubs that this is how one reads poetry. They think this is what they are supposed to do to poems. Likewise with novels and plays and all works of literature. This is the normative way literature is taught in schools, or at least that’s how it seems to me in my more cynical moments. Optimist me knows there must truly be legions of teachers out there who do not teach the torturing of literature but who instead lead children in gentle ways of exploration and delight.

And yes, Deconstructing Penguins does have a chapter on reading poetry. And yes it fundamentally misreads “The Road Not Taken.” Sigh. And pretty much misses the boat on Shel Silverstein’s “How Many, How Much.” And yes, as expected, from the very beginning the authors are leading us to take a poem apart “to use as an example of the manner in which poetry is constructed,” as if the poem were an engineering project that could be deconstructed and then put back together.

A Last Few Irritants

I. First, I found it dispiriting how many dystopian novels were being read by second and fourth graders: “By the time we read The Giver, our kids know that a made-up totalitarian society is a very popular vehicle in children’s books…” To each his own, of course, and I see how dystopian fiction has a lot to discuss and is good fodder for highly interactive discussion between parents and children, but I’m really not comfortable with it as a genre for early elementary school kids. And for that matter I think it’s far too prevalent on reading lists for middle and high school as well.

I like dystopian fiction. I’d love to teach a college-level class on it. But I think kids can easily become dispirited at how negative children’s literature is. We get enough depressing material in our history studies, at this point in our homeschooling adventure I prefer our literature to be heavier on the lighter adventure stories and not so much emphasis on the problem story. We did read Charlotte’s Web and A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, and of course The Lord of the Rings is hardly light fare, but the selection of novels discussed in this book felt a little darker than I prefer and that trend rather worries me. I think part of the problem might be in the way the authors frame their discussions, adventure stories don’t seem to them to be as conducive to critical discussion. I disagree.

II. Another quibble: the authors define allegory as “pretending to talk about one thing but really talking about something else.” There’s that word “really” again. Enough with the “really” already. I know allegory can be hard to talk about, but if you’re going to discuss allegory, do it right. It’s ok to talk about levels of meaning and types of exegesis, not so much to insist that one kind of meaning, the allegorical, is more real than another type, the literal. And that word “pretending” really, really bothers me. The literal meaning of the allegory isn’t a mere pretense. It is an integral part of the story’s meaning, not just a screen for the Great and Wonderful Oz to hide behind.

Let’s go back to the medieval fourfold method of exegesis and look at how one text can be read through multiple lenses. The authors almost approach this kind of reading in their chapter on point of view, which I thought was perhaps the strongest chapter in the book, weighing different points of view, looking at the text on its own terms and none of this nonsense about what it “really” means. I wish that their methodology had followed that approach throughout the book and not just in that one instance.

III. Finally: “Children’s literature is by definition less subtle and more approachable than adult fiction. The author wants the child to get the message.”

I’m disturbed by the notion that authors write and readers read literature for the sake of “the message.” Novels are not and should not be secret messages or propaganda vehicles. Yes, children’s book authors explore themes which are often simpler and more approachable to children. But while all authors want readers who engage with the material and think deeply about it, that’s not the same thing as saying they have a message to impart hidden in the text.

What to do instead of Detecting and Deconstructing literature?

Perhaps my insistence on this point seems a little too vehement. What’s so wrong about getting kids more involved in reading critically by engaging their love for mysteries and detection? It seems innocuous enough. What’s at stake here? Why does it matter so much to get this right? They’re only kids, after all. The authors’ aims are good and their methods seem to be successful: they get kids to talk about books and to engage with them more deeply and to understand how to read and to think critically. So what if there’s some oversimplification and misrepresentation? So what if the authors don’t quite understand how to go about it? They mean well and for the most part they clearly do a good job of getting children involved.

First, a wrong emphasis might not harm all children, but for some children this kind of approach risks alienating them and making literature seem like a puzzle misleads them on the real, deep reasons we read literature. But more important, this framework perpetuates a false model for reading and understanding literature. If it’s all just a puzzle, or if it’s all messages, then ultimately it’s an intellectual game, not an earnest search for a deeper truth about human experience. The author becomes something of a trickster, an antagonist, instead of a storyteller and a friend and a mentor.

If there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, which is implied when you talk about what a text “really” means, then that shifts the goal posts and ultimately trivializes the discussion. And while the authors repeatedly insist on the importance of enjoyment and understanding and seeking truth, their methods as described here, whether it’s an accurate reflection of what they are actually doing in their discussion groups, is at odds with what they claim their goals are.

Also, I think it underestimates what children are capable of understanding. If they can have complex discussions about protagonists and antagonists and the conflict of the story, if they can understand terms like “climax” and “allegory” and “symbolism”, then they can also understand that work of literature can have multiple themes and that the way we understand the various kinds of meaning in a text is very different from the simplistic way a detective finds out who committed a crime. Because in a crime there is just one possible correct solution, but in a novel or poem there isn’t just one correct meaning. When we jump past the literal to the allegorical or moral meanings we are missing something important about how stories and poems work and why they delight us and why we read them. And that misunderstanding impoverishes the whole enterprise.

Finally, and most importantly, when you begin with a false premise, you lay a foundation that is weak, one which will not support the subsequent construction. You build a structure which is fundamentally unsound and which will not stand the test of time; a strong wind or tide or the course of mere seasons will erode it. The literal meaning of a text is the foundation for all other meanings. If students learn to dismiss the literal meaning, their arguments will be weak, their understanding of theme and symbol flawed. While the book tries to teach students how to base their readings on textual evidence, the starting point, the question, “What does the book really mean?” undermines that work because it implicitly dismisses the literal meaning as less important and the enjoyment of the story as story becomes secondary to the pursuit of moral and allegorical meanings.

Instead of seeing the moral and allegorical meanings as being at odds with the literal meaning of the text, students should be shown how they spring forth from it as leaves and stem and flowers spring forth from a seed that is well tended. Then, instead of hacking at the roots, they will be tending the literary garden in truth, cultivating a deeper and richer understanding of how and why we read literature.

If I were to lead a book club, I’d begin the very first session with a reading of Billy Collins’ poem and talk about holding a poem up to the light, or dropping a mouse into it, or feeling for the light switch and how those are all very different from trying to take the poem apart to tell what it “really means.”

12 Responses to What the Book Really Means

  1. Michael May 8, 2016 at 4:16 pm #

    Brilliant! I think it’s important to look at everything (the methods of analysis as well as the literary works themselves) from the correct perspective else it doesn’t make sense. We won’t get the desired outcome.

    Would love to read more thoughts on this topic.

  2. Abigail Benjamin May 9, 2016 at 6:42 am #

    I’m in a writers group of mostly 60 year old women and we can all point the exact names of the English teachers who hurt us decades later with this method. I think even more than hurting readers, poorly taught English Classes hurts creative writers. Kudos to you for kicking the method to the curb!

  3. Kimberlee May 9, 2016 at 9:25 pm #

    I love this post! An excellent, fascinating and interesting review. But why do you think this book is so popular? It seems like a very sad approach to children’s literature, particularly for young children. The last thing on earth I’d want to teach a child is that books are to be tied to chairs to be tortured and beaten. It’s also like tying up the children and beating them (with questions and prompts) until they can verbalize ‘what the book really means.’ It’s so contrived, so demanding. And Mr. Popper, of all things, doesn’t need deconstructing.You are not alone in despising this approach to reading.

    • Melanie Bettinelli May 9, 2016 at 10:41 pm #

      I suspect the book speaks especially to parents and teachers who want to lead their children to good books but don’t even know where to begin, who themselves are uncomfortable with talking about literature. And to be fair, the book is not all terrible. In fact, I get the sense from many of the chapters that the tenor of many of their conversations isn’t all about torturing the books but does get into a thrill of discovery. So I think this book rides the line and can sometimes function as a good model and sometimes as a bad. It’s got a lot of good content, especially in the discussions about conflict and point of view. It’s very detailed in showing examples of real conversations about real books between parents and children and the moderators so that this kind of conversation becomes something accessible, imaginable.

      I think it’s telling that how the Goldstones talk about how important it is to give children meaty books and to avoid the fluff. Here’s what they say:

      “The theory, still in vogue, that says it doesn’t matter what your child reads as long as he or she reads *something* is just plain wrong. If anyone tries to convince you otherwise, don’t believe it….

      If you start your children off with books that are well-written, whose plots demands attention, with characters drawn with depth and wit, that is the type of reading they will come to enjoy. On the other hand, kids who are exposed to nothing but pop fiction or joke books or superficial biographies of sports heroes will become used to those and are unlikely to move to anything more challenging.”

      They aren’t aiming at giving kids great literature–beauty and truth and meaty ideas– They’re aiming at giving them something more than popcorn and cotton candy in an environment where children are given precisely that as the main course day in and day out. Their focus is on books that treat with social issues that can be fodder for discussion. And that I think is the root of this approach, what the book really means. They’ve chosen mainly books that can be mined for a message which can be easily accessed in a discussion by readers who aren’t at all used to reading literature. So maybe as a gateway to reading and discussing books it seems better than the alternative of not reading and discussing worthwhile books.

      They continue: “The most important thing that has come out of these discussion groups is that when a child learns that he or she need not simply run through a book and chalk it up as having been read, but rather should delve into what the book means, a great leap occurs. the children make connections to other books or other fields, and develop a context within which to approach everything– from what they see on television to how to stand up to a bully on the school playground. This leap has been reflected in their schoolwork. More than once parents have told us that their child’s teacher has commented at school conferences on their son’s or daughter’s increased ability to read, understand, and participate in classroom discussions.”

      My criticism still stands that this is a deficient approach to literature, but I can see where no one has even tried to teach kids to read and talk about good books, this approach seems rich, a veritable feast. When books are only chores for school, a book group where you get to sit and chat about books with your parents and friends does seem an intellectual paradise, so I don’t want to discount their experiences of their book groups as being transformative for both children and parents. So on the one hand, I don’t want to be too heavy handed with my criticism. There’s such great poverty out there when it comes to children deprived of good books and conversation about books that it’s tempting to glom onto anything which addresses that need. On the other hand, I think ultimately the flaws outweigh the goods because I see homeschoolers latching on to this methodology for lack of anything better and that does seem a poverty. But I can see the appeal certainly and I don’t want to paint it as being completely devoid of value. I just wish I knew of an attractive alternative easy to digest book that avoids the pitfalls of the Goldstones’ approach and delves more deeply into how to read great literature with children. I need to think about this some more and maybe write some more about how we should read novels and plays and poems with kids.

      I am currently reading Teaching Particulars, a book that does literary conversations really well but it’s aimed at grades 6-12, which doesn’t really overlap with Deconstructing Penguins’ grades 2-6. And the downside of this book is that it’s recounting of the conversations is much less detailed and so leaves a lot more to the teacher/instructor than Deconstructing Penguins does.

  4. Cathy J May 11, 2016 at 10:58 am #

    I would read a book you wrote on how to keep children interested in literature. It’s very discouraging to see my early reading, avid reader and lover of tall tales morph into a disinterested middle-schooler who no longer reads for fun. And I do blame the current trends in pedagogy: the list-keeping, the “20 minutes a day” whether you like it or not, the reading logs,the over-emphasis of dystopian books, and the over-emphasis on non-fiction in middle school English. So depressing.

    • Melanie Bettinelli May 11, 2016 at 11:46 pm #

      I’m not sure I have a whole book worth of things to say, but I might revisit the topic here on the blog.

      That is super depressing. And yes, all of those trends are designed to quash the joy of reading. And that I think it really the key to being interested in literature. it should be a joyful experience. I think there’s this huge anxiety over whether children are working hard enough, doing enough, writing enough. It’s totally lost sight of what education is and should be, what reading is for.

      In a Facebook discussion about this post my friend Sally Thomas made a great distinction between talking about WHAT a book/poem/text means and HOW it means. And I think that’s very much it. To talk about a singular WHAT implies that there is only one correct meaning, but when we focus instead on the HOW we look at the form and structure and admire the ways that all the little bits work together to create meaning. Then it’s a joyful exploration of how things work, how language sounds and sings, how plot works, how characterization works, how rhyme and meter and figures of speech work. The thing is that the first thing you do with a book or a poem is you enjoy it, you let it speak to you. With little kids you don’t need to do any more than that. Maybe talk about what they like about it, but really it should be informal conversation. But even with older kids, even with adults, all literary discussion has to begin with wonder. Wonder both in the sense of awe and also in the sense of the question, “I wonder…” I wonder why the author chose this word instead of that. I wonder why this sentence is so long. I wonder why the colors are so dark. I wonder why he includes that detail….

  5. PeterJM May 16, 2016 at 7:14 pm #

    This is a brilliant review and essay. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind a slightly different perspective (not necessarily contrarian) from a current high school English teacher.

    First of all, I completely agree with the essay’s major points. These are not in contention. As a English teacher, I abhor the idea—and practice—of trying to find out what “the author really meant.” The very idea reveals a misunderstanding of both art/literature and the act of reading. I also very much appreciate Bettinelli’s simultaneous claim that there are “themes and symbols” in literature but that they “the way in which a well-written story speaks to us about universal human experiences and meanings.”

    However, in my experience, students often misunderstand the distinction between these two very different approaches to reading literature, between hunting for authorial intention and reading literature for how it organically speaks to the human condition. In my class, we explore what narrative, in both its content and form, can tell us about what it means to be human; but I’ll still have students ask, randomly usually, “How do you know the red coat means he’s angry? Maybe the author just made his coat road?”—to which I reply, “Who’s talking about the red coat? I’ve never talked about a red coat meaning the character is angry.” No matter how often I tell them reading isn’t symbol- or authorial-intention hunting, they somehow think this is what I’m asking them to do—despite my insistence to the contrary.

    When students grow up and (hopefully) learn to love and read literature as adults, they often misremember what they did in high school. For example, I was listening to a podcast about literature and all three speakers were talking about rereading Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” in high school; they all said they had to actively fight the voice of their high school teachers who told them “what the story meant.” But then they proceeded to discuss the story in EXACTLY the same ways I teach the story in high school. It’s almost as if, when they were in high school, they didn’t understand what was being asked of them, so they thought it was all hokus pokus. But now that they’ve “learned” to read, they’re really just doing the same thing they were being asked to do in high school.

    Now don’t get me wrong: I’m sure there are terrible English teachers out there teaching literature the way the reviewed book recommends—and this is terrible. But I also think that some of the bad taste in people’s mouths is a result of misremembering, not understanding (as high school students) the distinction between hunting for authorial intention and investigating how stories explore what it means to be human.

  6. Heather Price May 21, 2016 at 12:09 am #

    On “The Road Not Taken”: my high school AP English teacher, when she was in college, had to tie that one up and beat the meaning out of it. The teacher was sure it had Grand, Life-Changing Meaning behind it. Which college to attend, whom to marry (or not), that kind of thing. Much discussion ensued.
    As it happened, Frost visited the college after this discussion. A student asked what he meant by the poem, what Grand, Life-Changing Decision he was struggling with in the poem.
    “None. I was just visiting a friend, and wandering around his property, and I came to a fork in the road. I thought it would make an interesting poem.”

    I have used that example with my own kids when teaching about literature.

    • Melanie Bettinelli May 21, 2016 at 12:25 pm #

      I’ve heard similar anecdotes before. (Maybe you’ve even told that one to me before and I was even remembering it?) I also love one about Kurt Vonnegut tells about taking a class on Vonnegut anonymously… and failing.

      When I wrote that bit I actually had this essay in mind: The Most Misread Poem in America:

      Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

      According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

      It’s the kind of close reading I do love, which looks carefully at the language to tease out meaning. It’s not a torturing of the poem but an inquiry into how the poem says what it says. And it definitely aligns more closely with Frost’s own narrative of the genesis of the poem as your teacher recounted it and also jives better with the rest of Frost’s body of work.

      • Melanie Bettinelli May 21, 2016 at 2:32 pm #

        Oh I meant to include this quote too:

        But is this view of “The Road Not Taken” and its creator entirely accurate? Poems, after all, aren’t arguments—they are to be interpreted, not proven, and that process of interpretation admits a range of possibilities, some supported by diction, some by tone, some by quirks of form and structure. Certainly it’s wrong to say that “The Road Not Taken” is a straightforward and sentimental celebration of individualism: this interpretation is contradicted by the poem’s own lines. Yet it’s also not quite right to say that the poem is merely a knowing literary joke disguised as shopworn magazine verse that has somehow managed to fool millions of readers for a hundred years. A role too artfully assumed ceases to become a role and instead becomes a species of identity—an observation equally true of Robert Frost himself. One of Frost’s greatest advocates, the scholar Richard Poirier, has written with regard to Frost’s recognition among ordinary readers that “there is no point trying to explain the popularity away, as if it were a misconception prompted by a pose.” By the same token, there is no point in trying to explain away the general misreadings of “The Road Not Taken,” as if they were a mistake encouraged by a fraud. The poem both is and isn’t about individualism, and it both is and isn’t about rationalization. It isn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing so much as a wolf that is somehow also a sheep, or a sheep that is also a wolf. It is a poem about the necessity of choosing that somehow, like its author, never makes a choice itself—that instead repeatedly returns us to the same enigmatic, leaf-shadowed crossroads.

        I love the both/and interpretation of Frost’s popularity and appeal to readers of poetry.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] literature in the first place. I’ve written about this before, thinking about book clubs, in What the Book Really Means and in A Child Takes What He Needs. But it’s a topic I never get tired of pondering, so here are […]

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