What is more important to most readers of literature…
Just the words as they are written?
Or the why the words were written – the author’s motivation?
Or the how the words were written – the author’s background?
When reading a thesis that may influence one’s medical or legal decisions, knowing that the author has the requisite knowledge and training to write with such influencing authority – the why and how of the words – probably should be important.
However, when it comes to literature – does it really matter what schools the author attended, or how well-read an author is?
Or would most readers regard a work of literature by a less-than educated or less-than well-read author similar to someone hacking in mad rage at a log with an ax and when she comes to her senses she discovers that she had, in her blind passion, formed a beautiful wooden sculpture*?
Would she have created art?
Should she then be considered an artist?
*This is far from an original thought of mine but unfortunately I cannot find the original quote to give proper credit. If you know, please comment.
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.
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.
So, instead of using the time to write like I always wish I had upon realizing that the morning has passed, I usually spend my mornings reading stuff off the web. I start with the news but end up flitting around the data pond like a water bug. A highly caffeinated water bug.
So, yeah, coffee in hand I settle into “the chair,” aka “the command center,” and begin a dereliction of my writing duties with sleepy anticipation. First I fire up my NPR One app so that I can have the settling drone of my favorite morning voices lulling me with all the day’s tragedies in the background, then I fire up my MSN News app. It’s pure awesomeness. What I like best about it is that it’s always feeding New York Times articles and they don’t count against the ten free articles I am allowed monthly. Yes, alas, I am too cheap to pay for a NYT subscription, which, of course, further promotes quality journalism’s fast march to death.
From that point on, your guess is as good as mine as to where I will end up…
Admittedly, mindless flitting can lead me to some highly dangerous and corrupting places.
So, because I can think of nothing better to post about right now (surely not because I assume you were wondering), here is a very quick cut of what a typical morning of mine looks like.
I have a tailored section in my MSN News app that pulls in everything “literature” related. Pretty handy. This morning it pulled in this article:
Despite the philosophical questions, Wood’s book is not really a metaphysical inquiry so much as a reflection on inquiry in writing. “The Why? question is a refusal to accept death,” he argues, and storytelling itself is almost a satanic act of rebellion given that the “ability to see the whole of a life is godlike.” By playing God, he argues, “we also work against God, hurl down the script, refuse the terms of the drama, appalled by the meaninglessness and ephemerality of existence.”
Interesting article; though I’m not sure it answered the question why fiction and criticism matter. Probably missed it since I’m constantly flitting around the internet which is causing my brain to unlearn its ability to learn.
But from the article, I did discover this by Thomas De Quincy:
Here I pause for one moment, to exhort the reader never to pay any attention to his understanding, when it stands in opposition to any other faculty of his mind. The mere understanding, however useful and indispensable, is the meanest faculty in the human mind, and the most to be distrusted; and yet the great majority of people trust to nothing else, which may do for ordinary life, but not for philosophical purposes.
A rather awesome essay; as is evident, I’m certain, even from the selected quote above.
So, yeah, after reading the De Quincy essay, can you guess where I’m flitting off to next?
Yup, you got it…
Off I go for a reread of this, which should easily take me to the end of the morning…
And the beginning of my dereliction of writing regrets.