If only literary inference was axiomatic...
June 25, 2012 5:20 AM   Subscribe

How do I get better at reading literature? Looking for books, lectures, and your perspective.

My apologies in advance for my very vague, very muddle-headed question. And sorry about being wordy too, I'm not very adept at expressing myself...

Essentially, I want to know how to get more out of the books I read.

I have always loved reading, every since I was a child. What I've noticed though, is that while I'm a fairly fast reader, and I retain most of the factual information (plot, characters, etc.), I find it difficult to draw larger conclusions based on what I've read.

In college, I studied a technical subject, but I had the chance to take a few literature classes for fun. I was always amazed at what my (comp lit/english major) classmates were getting out of the books we read for class. It seemed like they were able to draw inferences about the author's viewpoints, societal values, human nature, etc., based on a few paragraphs. What they were saying made sense to me, but I would never think to draw those conclusions myself.

This is partially because I tend to be wary of "generalizations". So what if this character did this thing in this book? How can I be sure that this is generalizable to people at large and not because of the idiosyncrasies of the author/character? In what kind of texts can you read beyond the words on the page, so to speak? And in what kind of texts do you need to just take the words at face value? Sometimes people will say things like, "oh, it makes sense that the character will do something like this, he is clearly a ___ type and based on his actions we can infer that he/the author believes _____" or "this is out of character and so makes this character unbelievable". Then I always think to myself, how can you possibly draw a conclusion like that? People are irrational and I myself do things without reasons all the time. Just because of this one thing a character does, you can attribute an entire belief system to him/her? And what do you mean out of character? As if we all have a "character" we somehow stick to for the entirety of our lives. Who in real life do you know is "believable?"

I guess I'm looking for any insight you may offer on this. When I was younger I always thought it was because you need life experiences/wisdom from age for seeing these kind of things. (Like, ahhh, I know what this character must be feeling, I felt the same way when ___ happened to me.) I'm a bit older how (early 20's, I know, still decades to go before I even get to the periphery of wisdom), but I feel like my ability to do this has not improved at all. (I am kind of a klutz and a scatterbrain, and on top of that not very perceptive at all, so perhaps that is the problem.)

For the english/comp lit/experience book readers out there, was there a class you took or a book you read that helped you with this? Should I start by reading a certain genre of books? (I'm most familiar with Russian literature.) When I took the lit classes, I found the teacher's in depth analysis very helpful. I'm looking for books, lectures, and any other resources that may be able to do the same.

I've read this AskMefi thread, but I'm more looking for suggestions specific to books.
posted by dragonfruit to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
These people are definitely making things up. Unless you are surrounded by unusual people it's unlikely they have much insight at all into the text, the author, context, etc. most likely they are saying things they have learned to say about similar texts. So, use your naïveté to your advantage. You say you don't find sufficient evidence to warrant these conclusions. Write a study of all of the evidence to support that. Write a well-documented argument proving there is not enough information to support these claims based on comparing what would be the necessary information ( interesting in itself) and all the information available about the character in question.
posted by michaelh at 5:34 AM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Russian literature would be a good place to start to practice closer reading, actually, since a lot of Russian works from the Communist era were very heavily censored. Well, other eras weren't great for free speech either. The authors who actually wanted to say something about their society got very good at not saying what they were saying, but still saying it, often through more fantastic elements. Probably, with a lot of Russian lit, if you think there is more "there" there, there is!

To start, I would keep a journal about everything you read. When you're reading, after you finish, whatever. And then just write about what struck you in the text. What got you to finish the book? What did you not understand? What did you love? Were there any passages that you read that made you go, "YES! Of course it's like that!" Did you not like the book at all? Did you think one character was awesome, or another one was totally repulsive? Once you identify some elements of the text that struck you, or questions that you might have, see if you can explore them deeper. If you have a question, see if you can find the answer elsewhere in the text. This usually involves flipping back and forth to different pages and re-reading sentences, paragraphs, or entire sections in light of what you now know came after.

If you don't mind marking your books underlining as you go helps mark interesting places for later reference. Or sticky tabs.

Close reading is one of those things that snowballs on itself. You identify one thing you want to think about closer, then more pop up while you explore that. The thing about close reading is that it's pretty useful to stay close to the text. Comparative readings are possible but can be difficult. There can be worlds contained in some of the most famous sections in Russian literature. You shouldn't have to stray too far from the text itself to get a lot out of it.

Also, last, read the critical inserts that sometimes come with the book. Forward, introduction, afterword...lots of Russian books translated into English (if that's what you are reading them in) come with essays written by someone who has studied the book and its relatives pretty closely. These are usually helpful if you are like "What did I just read?" and you can read them at any time - before the text, after the text, months later, whatever. It's fun to read the preface afterwards and be like, "I totally picked up on that too, famous academic!" It is like a small substitute for a conversation about the book if you don't know anyone else that's read it.

Anyway, if you keep the journal and then go through it after you've read a few books (maybe several in the same genre or language or era) then you might see that the things you draw from each book resemble each other, and that what engages you about each text is in many ways the same. These are themes!
posted by newg at 5:48 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding michaelh - it is quite easy to B.S. about literature. You're better off where you are - admitting that you need to learn.

You might like Nabokov's Lectures on Russian Literature. It's not a "how to," but Nabokov is very wary (to put it mildly) of simplistic interpretations, so you won't find the usual material about "this symbolizes that" or "Russian society was this way in 1859 and that's why the author is so concerned with this subject." Might help you avoid some of the pitfalls that high school and college teach a lot of us to make...! He taught this material to college students, so the writing is very clear; I think anyone with a decent high school education could make sense of it.
posted by Currer Belfry at 5:53 AM on June 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

In what kind of texts can you read beyond the words on the page, so to speak?

In every kind of text, from Russian novels to MetaFilter comments. That's what makes reading reading, and not just conveyance of factual information.

was there a class you took or a book you read that helped you with this?

One idea would be to read books written for writers, so you can see "behind the curtain" a bit and understand how writers of prose fiction are constructing the effects you and your classmates are experiencing. My favorite in this genre is The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner. I know that Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and Stephen King's writing book are also really popular.
posted by escabeche at 5:56 AM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.
― Christopher Hitchens

Former comp lit student here -- +1 that a lot of this sort of thing is BS. It can be extremely fun BS if you are into this brand of BS, but, it is sort of a snooty BSing art form; it's not science.

You might enjoy paging through something like The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory and the The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory (I find The Penguin Dictionary of [...] to be first-rate references in general)

The multicoloured Post-It notes and 'tape flags' were great tools for me when studying, but I can't say I enthusiastically recommend that route if you want to keep reading for fun...

Apart from basic guides to theory and criticism, the best books about books are usually the ones written by the writers themselves; if you like an author, seek out his or her non-fiction. But to simply "read more literature" is sound advice.
posted by kmennie at 6:09 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's mentioned in the previous thread, but I'd like to second recommending the book "How to Read Literature Like a Professor."
posted by drezdn at 6:12 AM on June 25, 2012

I analyze unpublished fiction manuscripts in my free time and here's my experience. There are a few ways to get better at this. One way--the best and most enjoyable way, in my opinion--is to read a lot, read widely, read the "classics" and read poetry. Poetry is really a great shorthand for many literary references.

Over time you'll build a deep reservoir of knowledge of characters, images, plots, conflicts, settings, and symbols. You won't have to learn that a peach symbolizes life, because you'll be making your own well-founded and unique connections. For you a peach may symbolize loss, because it recalls to you three or four other works where a peach decayed and there was a general tristesse about a character.

Another way is to simply read a book over and over again. I read most of the books I critique four times. You know when you listen to a song so often that some parts fall away and new parts come to the suffice? It's just like that with a book, except we rarely read books more than once. But this is another good way to find what you're after with this question. Reread, then read again, then put a book away for a year or two, then read it a fourth time. You'll begin to see lots of layers that aren't discernible on a first read-through.

A third way is to understand where the book you're reading sits in context to those classics. Is it close on the heels of another book in the same culture during the same socio-political events? Is it a satire of another book? A literature timeline (like this one, no endorsement implied) is useful for getting your bearings.

Lastly, as escabeche mentions, is to read books about writing. I like Gardner's book a lot, not so much Lamott's or King's for this sort of thing (better if you're actually trying to write a book). In addition to Gardner, I recommend James Wood's How Fiction Works, Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, and Thomas C. Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Charles Baxter's The Art of Subtext might be helpful, too.
posted by Yoshimi Battles at 6:37 AM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another former tech major who took lit electives here. One thing that I had a hard time internalizing was the fact that, in novels, everything happens for a reason. If a story is well written, then the author has carefully chosen every scene and every line of dialog to create their characters' personalities and histories. Contrast this with real life, where 24 hours worth of stuff happens every day regardless of any potential for plot development.
I got better at recognizing this by reading short stories and watching tv. When the scope of a story is more limited, it's easier to see how a small collection of events can add up to a bigger picture. Reading Hemingway led to some epiphanies for me because his writing is so sparse, it's clear that each word is there for a reason.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 6:41 AM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Arghh, "comes to the surface," not "the suffice"!
posted by Yoshimi Battles at 6:59 AM on June 25, 2012

I love this book: How to Read a Book.

It's extremely helpful with non-fiction but it really helps with everything. It starts with the premise that to get more out of books, you should read them purposefully, as in: as yourself what is your purpose in reading this book.

It then goes through the theory behind it but also gives you very practical tips on approaching all sorts of subject-matter and books.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 7:09 AM on June 25, 2012

There are a lot of different ways to read literature, and now that we're beyond the New Criticism, it's okay to read for different things. I think one of the confusions people get into about reading fiction (let's just say fiction, eh?) is rooted in the anxiety that they need to do a particular kind of reading.

Here are some ways to read, none of which are mutually exclusive

1. For the plot, characterization, lyrical descriptions, etc

2. For insight-into-human-nature, etc. Not because a story is a psychology text, but because you can use what the book says about people and situations to compare, ask questions, look at the world through. (When I was a kid, actually, I had a problem with taking books very literally - expecting that people's interior lives really were the interior lives depicted in books instead of varying degrees of approximation/mimesis/etc.)

2.5. For how the book is written - is there an authorial voice? Is a narrator reliable or unreliable? Is the book very much about describing a world or a milieu? Is the conversation written in a "realistic"* manner? Are descriptions lyric or literal? What techniques does the author use to give you a sense of who the characters are?

3. For what the author says. Authorial intent is pretty tricky, right? So we won't go there. But you can make certain observations about the way the author tends to write - in Gene Wolfe, for example, divorced or sexually aggressive women will almost always be bad people and come to a nasty end; Doris Lessing has a feel for the African landscape but no real interest in that of the UK. I find that it helps to read quite a lot of a particular author in doing this - it's pretty easy to see the parallels and differences between Jane Eyre and Villette, for example.

4. As genre and/or intertextually. So I'm really into science fiction, especially radical science fiction and science fiction by women, queer folks and POC. When I read an SF novel, I might read it as in dialogue with other books about the genre. For instance, Ammonite by Nicola Griffeth is a reimagining of "swashbuckling adventure stories with lone heroes on planets populated by primitive cultures"...it critiques some of the conservative tendencies of that plot, it reimagines the hero as a lesbian, it shows off by doing all kinds of fancy genre-y things (the sequence with the semi-legendary giant furry people, for example). It's in dialogue with a bunch of other feminist SF novels, so it kicks around tropes about parthenogenesis, non-hierarchical societies, feminist ideas about how societies could work without money as such....I enjoy thinking about how it reworks these ideas and what other books Griffeth is probably referencing.

5. In fancy-pants literary theory ways - a psychoanalytic reading, for example, in which you think "how do these ideas from Lacan explain what goes on in the text"? (People get really reductionist about this.) Or you might do sort of a reading about history - how does this novel reflect the prevalent ideas of what it was to become an educated adult? Or how does it reflect the idea that it is no longer possible to become an "educated adult" in the same way as in the past? Etc, etc.

6. Various political readings, sophisticated and simple. These are also theory readings. You might read a book to see - for example - how it depicts gender relations. You could do this in a number of ways from the literal - are all the women characters vapid and enjoy shopping except for the one who is smart and likes man-things? - to fancier ways of thinking about how power works among the characters. You can even do a sort of "counter-reading", where you look to see how a character who is immiserated in the text (someone who is shown as vapid or useless or evil, for example) chooses to act as they do. Or you can consider the overall logic of the text - does the whole story exist in order for the author to write a rape scene?

7. And of course lots of other ways - close readings, etc. I've read literary theory extremely selectively (to say the slightest!) so I have only a passing acquaintance with fancy ways of reading.

Some books about reading:

1. Joanna Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing is a really funny, really accessible book about reading. Obviously, it's a book of feminist essays about women's writing and writing about women, but it also tips you off about a lot of things to look for in books.

2. bell hooks's Resisting Representations was absolutely eye-opening for me, both politically and otherwise. It names a lot of ways to read.

3. George Orwell's literary criticism (which you can find best in the four volumes of his collected occasional writings - My Country Right or Left, In Front of Your Nose, As I Please and An Age Like This). "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool", his writing about Smollett and his writing about Dickens I particularly remember. He's not what you'd call a fancy critic but he is a great writer about books. I ended up reading a lot of stuff because he wrote about it.

4. Franco Moretti's Signs Taken for Wonders and The Way of the World. The former is a book of essays about sort of genre-y stuff. My favorite is The Dialectic of Fear, because of the kind of reading it does - a really stunningly clever reading of Dracula and Frankenstein as being about class relations and the rise of US-style finance capital. Moretti isn't concerned with whether Stoker sat down and thought "I shall write about finance capital!"; he just uses the text to show some really neat things. It was totally revelatory to me when I read it. The Way of the World is a critical theory of the bildungsroman, or novel-of-becoming-adult. In it, Moretti talks about the rise and decline of the form as related to history and social class. It's really neat.

5. Samuel Delany's letters in 1984 and About Writing and indeed, pretty much any of his critical writing. He has a big ol' "what is postmodernism?"-type essay in either Shorter Views or Longer Views that I think is just excellent.

*One of the most helpful things I ever read about "realism" was an observation by Samuel Delany that "realism" is really about giving the reader the feeling that something is "real" - it's not the literal recording of all detail as it would happen, but more of a trompe l'oeil / stage setting thing. A novel that tries to be as "real" as possible (recording all detail, giving speech with the ums and ers it actually contains, etc) would seem very artificial.
posted by Frowner at 7:12 AM on June 25, 2012 [10 favorites]

I think reading a book alone is a fairy different experience then reading it with other people. Other people will get things out of it that you don't because well, they have had different educations and different lives. I'd recommend either starting a book club or taking a literature class online or at your local community college. If you really want to get the perspective of someone with a degree in literature, taking a community college or online class is a cheap and easy way to that. Otherwise, you'd be surprised at the insights your friends will have. Plus book clubs are fun:)
posted by bananafish at 7:13 AM on June 25, 2012

One thing I didn't understand as a high school student and for the first semester or so of college (and I'm a Humanities Nerd, so this has to be a somewhat common thing) was that

The Author Is Doing All This For A Reason.

You're reading a story. You're not interacting with the world as it actually is.

So when you meet a character in a story, and they seem indicative of a certain type of person, or to be similar to some sort of literary trope, or every time the character appears the author mentions some specific thing or describes something in a specific way, you can assume that the author did that for a reason. And that, because of this, it's OK to draw conclusions and make assumptions.

Example. Right now I'm reading Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Every time we meet Dorian, we're hit over the head with how beautiful he is, and in the beginning, we're told explicitly that he is virtuous, pure, and maybe even a little naive. Wilde is doing this for a reason. Not only is it OK to generalize certain things about Dorian's character (and others' reactions to him) because of this, you have to do this in order to really understand the book. If you think, "I mustn't judge Dorian or make generalizations about his character," the book will just be a bunch of poncey faffing around. The whole theme of the novel is beauty, vanity, and the way that self-awareness corrupts people. If you can't make any judgments about the characters, you can't get to that theme, and the whole thing is a pointless exercise in describing lovely Victorian sitting rooms.
posted by Sara C. at 8:02 AM on June 25, 2012

Oh, and "believable" characters? Not really worth thinking overmuch about, in my opinion. If an author is any good, you believe the characters because they're well-drawn, and you're pulled into the story. In good/classic/capital-L literature, worrying about this should not really be a thing.

And if you do feel like a character isn't "believable", it's probably just pulp you can enjoy without worrying about any of this sort of thing.
posted by Sara C. at 8:04 AM on June 25, 2012

The easiest thing to do: as you read, imagine what highly opinionated, skewed, biased summary you'd give of the story as dinner conversation intended to entertain your friends. See Bettermyths.com or Hark A Vagrant for examples. People doing parody are typically excellent readers, making interesting generalizations.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:26 AM on June 25, 2012

One of my faves is a book called The Art of Fiction by David Lodge. It's fun to read - David Lodge is a novelist and essayist with an engaging style, and the works he selects are entertaining and enlightening. His insights make you want to go out and read all the books he talks about. He reminds you that reading is FUN! These essays appeared originally in a magazine, and they're conversational and accessible.

Another book I love is called Reading Novels by George Hughes. This is a work that supplies a lot of information about theory - at the end of it, you won't just be driving the car, you'll be an expert about what goes on under the hood. There's an interesting discussion about the fact that a transcription of actual speech would be incomprehensible to readers. Fiction writers can't just dump actual heard speech onto the page. They use certain tricks to create dialogue that feels lifelike, though what you see on the page is anything but - and you'll find out what these secrets are as you read. And there are plenty of others.

Both books approach literature with an eye for the importance of character and psychology to dramatic conflict. You come away with the feeling that there's almost nothing on earth more interesting than the literary exploration of why people do what they do.
posted by cartoonella at 8:44 AM on June 25, 2012

Some of the above suggestions are pretty good. But remember that some people will probably never "get" Literary Theory. As an English Lit major, I drove my professors in my Lit Theory seminars crazy when they expounded on the "reasons" behind the characters' actions or the "reasons" behind why the author wrote a particular way and I said, "Maybe the author just thought it sounded better that way?" I mean honestly, does there have to be a reason behind every word? I hardly think so.

Some people just aren't wired to make generalizations. We can't take one line out of a book or poem and say, "This is what the entire story revolves around." It just doesn't click. We can't come up with a theme or a thesis because it just doesn't pop up in our minds that there is one. One of the main difficulties I had as an English Lit major was the different ways of explicating a novel or poem. I just wanted to read the silly things and enjoy them. That's why I became an English major in the first place. I didn't want to dissect them to pieces. The only person who knows why the words on the page came out the way they did is the author -- and the authors of the classics are dead so we can't ask them.

Honestly? Read anything and everything because you enjoy it. If you're suddenly struck with the notion that Frankenstein's monster represents something other than a monster, then great, you have something to talk about. If you don't, then you haven't lost anything really. You still can talk about the novel itself, how it's written, how eloquent the monster talks, how different the monster is represented in the media... Literary theory never has to rear its ugly head.

And don't think you have to read all of the classics in order to understand it all either. I don't enjoy most so-called classics -- and I can't stand anything that Nabokov, Hemingway, or Faulkner ever wrote, though everyone keeps telling me they're great. There are classics written every day, and many wonderful, older books that never made it into the canon. Seek out what you enjoy.

Even though I never really grasped the concept of Literary Theory, I still passed my Master's program with a decent GPA. To the end, I stuck to my guns that yeah, perhaps Dickens was a master storyteller because his brilliance lay in what my professors said (depending on which theory they were teaching), or maybe he was just a master storyteller because he knew how to tell a great story.
posted by patheral at 9:00 AM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

This previous question has some more resources you may be interested in.
posted by soelo at 9:43 AM on June 25, 2012

This is partially because I tend to be wary of "generalizations". So what if this character did this thing in this book? How can I be sure that this is generalizable to people at large and not because of the idiosyncrasies of the author/character? In what kind of texts can you read beyond the words on the page, so to speak? And in what kind of texts do you need to just take the words at face value? Sometimes people will say things like, "oh, it makes sense that the character will do something like this, he is clearly a ___ type and based on his actions we can infer that he/the author believes _____" or "this is out of character and so makes this character unbelievable". Then I always think to myself, how can you possibly draw a conclusion like that? People are irrational and I myself do things without reasons all the time. Just because of this one thing a character does, you can attribute an entire belief system to him/her? And what do you mean out of character? As if we all have a "character" we somehow stick to for the entirety of our lives. Who in real life do you know is "believable?"

One of the big ideas I want to respond to in this whole paragraph is that you make choices all the time in critiquing or analyzing literature. You don't have to "be sure" that it's generalizable. You can attribute belief systems to a character based on one line or action, just to see where it will take you. And no one will ever know whether you're objectively 'right', because there's no such thing with a piece of fiction. There are common types of analysis (Marxist, feminist, etc.) that correspond to major historical or political movements contextual to the author's time.

Also, of course real people have "characters" - people talk about character and personality all the time. You might do things for "no reason" in your day-to-day life, but surely people close to you would be able to describe you by some stable set of adjectives. If you think about your closest friends, couldn't you predict what they are likely to do in different situations?

If you're into science, think of this as defending a hypothesis. You don't have to prove that this character's actions should be interpreted this way, absolutely 100% no question, but you need to have some support for why you might think that and "results" that show it's a plausible theory. Someone else might have another theory that they also have evidence for. The cool thing about novels is that there's not one "right answer" to them. Different people focus on different motifs and lines and such. In science, we don't know if outlier data is just random noise or something to be examined in more detail. We use the information we have to decide what is most likely.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:52 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Speaking as someone who easily (very easily) draws literary inferences, I have to say most of it is just bullshit. I mean, some of it is true insofar as you can 'make' it true (that is, it is metaphorically true because it makes sense psychologically based on the given characters and what we know of human nature, or because you can draw reasonable comparisons and convince others). But the whole endeavor of literary criticism and analysis is basically bullshit from an empirical, 100% rational point of view. You're not crazy or deficient, it's really true that words are only words, a cigar is only a cigar, and all those people running around doing silly things because of written words are, well, they're the crazy ones. Of course it's 'human nature', but so what? People are crazy.

I think yours is a valid response to literature, in other words, and it would be extremely awkward and probably less than satisfying to you personally if you went out of your way to think differently. I don't think gaining experience really helps in such a systematic mismatch with so-called fictional reasoning; you can basically project more easily onto characters if you gain experience, but you won't want to do it any more than you had previously-- and it won't feel any more natural if it doesn't already.

When I said 'project', I meant that when people say they 'get' characters, first of all they're often wrong by the simple expedient of the fact that they're talking about themselves, not the actual nature of the characters. Secondly, even the reasonable people tend to be (in my opinion) often wrong. This is why I said lit crit is bullshit-- it can sound 100% reasonable and be based on (in my opinion) supremely flawed assumptions, personal projection and downright ignoring of facts as stated in the narrative. You can learn to bullshit too, don't get me wrong, but I'm not sure it would add that much to your sense of connection to the piece of fiction, and may easily instead serve to distance you from it, since you could then spin it in the same manner a politician or marketing person spins the truth. At heart, 'seeing' into words is using your imagination to play with it-- it's not about finding out the truth, but rather riffing on it, like jazz musicians do with music. Any literary analysis is ultimately an act of co-creation or adaptation of an inert material, which is why they say fiction is born in the interface between the text and the reader. It doesn't exist as 'truth', so all understanding is ultimately subjective. And to an objective frame of mind, subjectivity is, of course, bullshit by default.

Anyway, if you really want to get into it, forget making sense and go with your gut feelings. Get in touch with your knee-jerk biases. Read something and 'swallow' it slowly, paying attention to whether you feel supportive of the writer/character, whether you feel a spark of pity or disgust, whether you want them to succeed or are rooting for them to fail. Try to find random similarities that may make no sense, and just go with them-- hey, a character is redheaded, do you know any redheads? Are they alike in personality? If they are, decide that the character is behaving a certain way 'cause they're a typical redhead. You may feel crazy, and well, you just became a little crazier, but just go with it.

FYI, I'm not a self-hating English major... I just have a good sense of the absurdity of human beings.
posted by reenka at 12:38 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is partially because I tend to be wary of "generalizations". So what if this character did this thing in this book? How can I be sure that this is generalizable to people at large and not because of the idiosyncrasies of the author/character? In what kind of texts can you read beyond the words on the page, so to speak? And in what kind of texts do you need to just take the words at face value? Sometimes people will say things like, "oh, it makes sense that the character will do something like this, he is clearly a ___ type and based on his actions we can infer that he/the author believes _____" or "this is out of character and so makes this character unbelievable". Then I always think to myself, how can you possibly draw a conclusion like that? People are irrational and I myself do things without reasons all the time. Just because of this one thing a character does, you can attribute an entire belief system to him/her? And what do you mean out of character? As if we all have a "character" we somehow stick to for the entirety of our lives. Who in real life do you know is "believable?"

Also, think about why one might be driven to read. I think that many of us are socialized to believe that reading Great Literature is worthwhile in and of itself, that it makes us better in some unspecified way regardless of our needs and situations. And therefore we expect Great Literature to have Great Moral Lessons That Are Easy To Discern And Apply Universally.

So what does reading do for you?

- Makes you a better reader and writer - wider vocabulary, greater speed, greater range of imagination, awareness of cliches, more references and tags and bits of poetry and so on kicking around in your head. Importantly, helps you to get in the habit of reading complex sentences and extended texts.

- Gives you more general knowledge and ideas, some of which are wrong or harmful. You read Jane Eyre and you know what people are talking about when they talk about Jane Eyre; you can compare Jane Eyre with various tropes in novels and movies; you have certain ideas, both accurate and non-, about early 19th century life; you have access to certain philosophical points advanced in the text, both helpful and non-.

- Gives you questions about the world: are people really like Mr. Rochester? Would that be a good idea? What does Mrs. Fairchild think as she is being the faithful family retainer? Would you choose a miserable yet noble-spirited project versus the one that makes you happy in a very immediate way? Is the novel kind of unfair to Blanche What'sHerName who wants quite reasonably to marry Mr. Rochester?

- Gives you questions about history and culture: Why is a turning point of the novel "should Jane choose the noble/miserable marriage versus the selfish/happy one?" What does that say about how the novel's audience was thinking about gender and marriage? What about that whole racist "degenerate madwoman-of-color-in-the-attic" thing? Why is there that whole interlude where Jane's tragically ill friend is reading Rasselas? What is Rasselas anyway? What were orphanages really like? What was charity work really like?

- Gives you sort of historico-philosophical questions: If Jane Eyre is a sort of proto-feminist novel, and Jane is good in part because she is less sexual, more cerebral and more disciplined, and if she is contrasted with the more sexual, less cerebral and darker women (both Blanche and Mr. Rochester's first wife) what does this mean about how Anglophone feminism comes into being? In what ways has this "good" model of being female persisted? And how did it come into being? What was Bronte reacting against? (Jane Eyre is a really interesting book, even if it is full of Terrible Ideas as well as Revolutionary Ideas.)

- Gives you questions about how the book is constructed - how does Bronte use landscape, for example? How does she use clothing? How does she use the characters' speeches, which are often cryptic or oddly extended and passionate? How does she use the idea of books? Which books? What is the role of making art in the novel? What are the religious images in the book?

You could also do a broadly psychoanalytic reading, for example - How is the family destroyed and reconstituted in this novel? Who appears as "fathers" in the book, and what are they like? Who appears as mother figures? Etc.

Now, we could probably establish some kind of 'truth' about the novel if we could have a really frank interview with Charlotte Bronte - under hypnosis, perhaps. We could establish what she wanted to do with the novel, whether she picked Rasselas on purpose or whether it was just the first likely novel she could think of, whether the Red Room is red for any symbolic reason or if it just sounded spooky, where she got her ideas about race. And then we'd have the pleasure of saying "my reading is correct! I guessed the author's intent!" Quite a lot of literary criticism got hung up on this for a while, I think. I suspect that this is because books really do tend to have patterns and repetition and themes and all that stuff, and it became really tempting to justify talking about them because "the author put them there". Also, if someone is like "Jane Eyre is kind of racist, yo", you can say "but the author obviously didn't intend to be racist because [the Past] so your objection is irrelevant"....and then you don't have to deal with the racism in the book.

But that's kind of limiting, right? Sure, it is an interesting kind of scholarship to learn about Charlotte Bronte and what she thought about writing and her work - and very valuable in certain kinds of interpretation. But it's not the only thing to do. And a novel is a living work, right? We read it differently now than we would have in 1900, when it wasn't actually viewed as important at all. Or Bronte's other big work, Villette - Villette was hardly even in print in the mid-seventies, back before the women's movement started talking about it.

I tend to view novels as a cross between puzzles and building blocks. I like to figure out some theme, like "how does the author use religious imagery?" or "how does the author use references to 'the Orient'?" and make up an argument about it. I also like (but can't always create) exciting big lyrical interpretations, where you talk about how Dracula can be read as a figure for feudal economic development under assault from the "new" economic world represented by the English and Americans.

The point is, reading in different ways allows me to think new things and make new arguments. Sometimes those are comparatively "fact" based - it wouldn't make sense to argue that Charlotte Bronte had the same conception of mental illness that we do now, so to talk about how she depicts mental illness in Jane Eyre requires both thoughtful interpretation that is true to the text and some knowledge of the period. Sometimes they are lyrical and fanciful - a sort of more serious version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where you're "filling in" what is absent from the text or referred to only in passing in order to make an argument about the book or about history. (I love the idea of all those Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters books even though they're a bit one note - the idea of filling in what has been occluded or missing or hidden in the service of a "normal" narrative. Only if I were writing them it would be more like Sense and Sensibility and Slavery or Jane Eyre Meets The Sex Workers or something.

Anyway, you can read more happily if you think about what reading enables you to do rather than thinking of it as "there are sekrits in the books and I do not have the key".
posted by Frowner at 1:36 PM on June 25, 2012

Wow, lots of great answers! I appreciate all the thought that went into these, and I'm still in the process of going through all of them.
posted by dragonfruit at 4:21 AM on June 26, 2012

But the whole endeavor of literary criticism and analysis is basically bullshit from an empirical, 100% rational point of view.

I admit that literary criticism and analysis can be done poorly---just like statistics or lab work or any other endeavor to produce knowledge---but I would not describe this entire field of study as "bullshit." To those inclined toward more scientific or "empirical" pursuits, it might be helpful to think of the text as the evidence, and the generalization as the theory to explain the evidence.

Also, OP, it seems as though you are more interested in identifying the theme(s) of text than in learning various theories. Am I understanding you correctly? If so, I encourage you to look up theme in a lot of different literary handbooks---M. A. Abram's A Glossery of Literary Terms is fairly standard and The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms is useful. After developing a consolidated working definition of the term, read some short stories in anthologies (the Norton series is pretty ubiquitous and Making Literature Matter would be particularly good for this purpose) and practice identifying the theme(s). After you have worked through the story yourself, read the questions at the end and see what the editors of the anthology have identified as important issues.

If you are actually more interested in learning about various ways of reading, Peter Barry's Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory is very helpful. Barry provides lists of key concepts and questions as well as examples of certain types of readings. Another, free, option is to browse through the Purdue Online Writing Lab's section devoted to Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism.

Lastly, contrary to some of the previous advice, I would most likely avoid reading books intended for writers (unless, of course, you are interested in becoming a writer). Writers and readers do very different things with and to texts. Thinking like a writer will most likely not help you think like a reader. It seems to me that writers are interested primarily in how texts do something while readers are interested primarily in what texts do and why they do it.
posted by rapidadverbssuck at 12:40 PM on June 26, 2012

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