Probably the most influential and impactive course I took during my college years (and for me, “college years” do not mean four coming-out-years of raucous partying and occasional studying, it means thirteen long and tedious years of night school, transferring to this college or that college depending on where the military assigned me, and all of which were completely dependent upon the sacrifice and commitment from my lovely and loving wife) was a Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism (or something to that effect) course while attending Tidewater Community College in Chesapeake, Virginia, oh so long ago.
It was this course, taught by an instructor mild in manner but powerful in purpose and ability whose name I sadly cannot remember, in which I was instructed and inspired to become an active reader — a reader who brings to a book not just a desire to be entertained, but desires to seek within the work deeper and hidden meanings, as well as to impose upon the work a personal agenda.
I quickly learned that being an active reader by itself takes more than a little bit of effort; but being an active reader with an angle, so to speak, is an exhaustive work out.
No really… thinking burns significant calories, my friend. Ergo, the harder you think, the more calories you burn, ergo once more… the more exhaustive – and rewarding – workout you have. Don’t believe me ask the Google God.
If you aren’t aware, I happen to be an excessively white, less-than-excessively (nowadays, anyway) WASPy kind of dude who was socialized as a youth in and by an excessively white and WASPy home, church, school, television, books, etc. kind of way. And one thing about us white, WASPy dudes — and if you are not a white, WASPy dude you probably understand this much better than we ever will — is that we have a very strong tendency to see the world through rose-colored glasses.
I mean, come on, the industrialized world we now live in pretty much has grown out of the minds of past and present white, WASPy dudes so why wouldn’t all the rest of us white, WASPy dudes think all life is just grand and peachy keen, right?
Anyway… we can have a much longer discussion about the pros and cons of white, WASPy worldviews later, but the point about it here is, when it came to being an active reader with an agenda, well, I just didn’t have one to inherently apply to the literature I was reading, since most of the literature I was reading came from the minds of those with worldviews similar to mine.
Can you dig?
Which is why the book the course was based upon was so important to the success of the class, and why, even today, it continues to be so important to me.
This is the 5th Edition. My copy of the book is an old, beat up 2nd Edition
Long story short – kind of: The book provides a survey of all the major schools of literary criticism and the coursework involved reading short stories and having to critique them by applying the various critical schools. This, of course, meant that yours truly here had to think, read, and react to the work not like a staid white, WASPy dude that I was and, much to much of the world’s dismay, still am, but as a Deconstructionist, or, gasp, a Marxist or even, deeper gasp… a Feminist!
Needless to say, I survived the severe disruption to my cozy worldview. But I didn’t just survive it, I thrived from it. It really opened my eyes to all the many ways – good and not so good – works of literature can and are interpreted and understood by those with worldviews quite dissimilar to mine.
I’ve come to find that life is much more thoughtful and clear and understanding once those rose-colored glasses were removed and seen as others without them see it.
So, I ask you, Dear Reader, what’s your angle?
Are you an active reader?
Do you bring an agenda to a body of literary work when reading it?
My guess is most of us don’t because being an active reader is tough work.
Even though I intend to go into a body of work with purpose, I more often than not find myself being a “casual reader,” a reader easily lured into passivity by the cozy confines of verisimilitude, until I’m wrapped up – held hostage – by the telling of a good story. And once I finally am able to break free from the stories grasp, I’ll have to go back and try once again to read critically what I had just read mindlessly.
As Kurt Vonnegut so wisely, and often, said: So it goes…
However, if you, Dear Reader, are an active reader with an agenda, or even if you are not, I’d like to know about it. Drop me a line in the comment section and let me know about your reading strategy, or lack thereof.
And if you are a book reviewer with an agenda, please provide links to some of your work. I would love to read it and, perhaps, reblog it here to share with others.
Write [and Read] on!