This past week my muse sent me a thought as the spinning wheel of fate had landed me in an environment that was altogether foreign. I found myself reading a book to an eager audience, rapt with attention, willing to ask questions, unabashed in pointing out ambiguities and inconsistencies within the text I was bellowing forth. As each page was turned in profound anticipation, the audience’s eyes grew wide and a chorus of unintelligible exclamations were released from the open throats of those attentive listeners. The end reached, a discussion ensued, an issue raised, a conclusion agreed upon: the work: a fantasy. A second book was pulled and read in the same fashion with nigh similar results. And as I sent the little second graders off into the labyrinth of books that surrounded us, with a beaming smile on my face, I thought that this whole process we call reading may just be the most important skill any student is taught.
I have had the privilege in the last few months of my life to read to the three levels of American education: elementary, middle school, and high school. I have found that while high school students fall asleep faster than the that man in the back row of the Baptist church on daylight savings time Sunday (tomorrow btw [and tomorrow, and tomorrow]); while Middle School students do not have that inert ability to sit in one spot for more than five seconds as does, say, Rand Paul, but have such a flurry and flighty recklessness about them, careening off of walls and desks and lockers and teachers; while this juxtaposition exists between those two pillars of education, those little elementary students do not yet hate reading with every fiber and are to some degree willing to listen to a story or two.
Though it is certainly true that we do not want society reading like second graders, it is also true that we need a society to read like second graders. The second grader, in my very limited experience, is so caught up in the story that they forget to hate reading, and this leads them to asking the correct questions. For example, in reading to the group of second graders this week, the story, Robert Munsch’s Mud Puddle, we all recognized the highly unlikely events that were said to have occurred. This caused an obvious disagreement with the children: how can a mud puddle be alive? A simple question no doubt, but one we often forget to ask: Why is that mud puddle alive? We concluded as a group that the work was fantasy, and I did not have to even pretend to prompt that answer. But the point is not so much that the students were asking questions, it was that they were altogether caught up in the story.
The work of literature I want to comment on, and I will do so briefly, is Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. In many ways, second graders read more like professors than high school students. This not meant to belittle high school students. The point is that as we progress in our educational steps to graduation, we become more and more apt to read for answers, to read to pass a test, to read to please a teacher. We forgot long ago to read with that weird thing we reserve for music and movies: Joy. And reading difficult literary texts, overcoming the challenge and arriving at a (never the) destination, is a very joyful experience.
I already know what you may be thinking: Why would I read a book for professors? Well, though I intend to become one, I am not a professor, and anytime the word like is used in this sense we draw the conclusion that the book is actually not for professors. Otherwise it would be titled How Professor’s Should Read Literature. If you say something is like something else you are in once sense comparing, in another sense contrasting. So with that, I recommend this book. It is a very easy read and will be truly helpful in your literary journey.
A disclaimer: Probably the major frustration with this book for most readers will be Foster’s insistence on referencing novels and short stories that you have never heard of let alone read. Obviously, he has no choice but to give us literary examples. This does two things: (1) it gives us a fresh humility in our recent canon of literary texts we’ve read and (2) consequently this drives us to read like professional madmen until we draw our last breath. Anytime I read CS Lewis, this same feeling hits me like a ton of bricks: I am terribly under-read. As I stated earlier, I believe reading to be the most important skill a person can have. Being a good, critical reader is second. Does my bias show at all?
Meaning is Everything, Everything is Meaning
One major “theme” that Foster touches on is that we should assume to some degree that everything in literature is intentional. And when we say everything, we mean everything: meals, weather, seasons, violence, symbolism, politics, sex, geography, diseases, etc. Writers are incredibly skillful individuals, and while we cannot know for certain some of the intentions of a man who is currently pushing up daisies, we can use the evidence from other literary works to draw conclusions on the one we are analyzing because, as Foster states, everything is included in one overarching story. For instance, the month of December and the winter season in general have taken on the symbolic meaning of death for ages, and spring symbolizes restoration. This is nearly universal. Likewise, characters are often given marks, or deformities for reasons other than the first layer of physical meaning. Richard III is given a hunched back by Shakespeare because he is a monstrous and tyrannical ruler. Charles Trask is given a hideous mark on his forehead by Steinbeck in East of Eden because he resembles Cain and his mark. (His brother’s name is Adam, Abel. Initials are often very important in Steinbeck). This coincides with blindness and other maladies of which I have actually spoken of concerning King Lear and Barnaby Rudge.
The literary rule is that nearly everything in a novel or short story is fair game for double meaning, something I like to better coin “layered meaning.” It is not that the symbols have two meanings as much as they have different meanings when analyzed from different perspectives. Obviously blindness as blindness has only one meaning on that first, physical layer of perspective. But from a moral perspective, or a romantic or intellectual perspective, the blindness takes on a broader meaning, while still holding intact the other meanings. Though it can function without that first level of meaning, it should, mind you, always be appreciated on the first level before any other. We don’t appreciate the phrase “blinded by love” without first appreciating physical blindness for the pain it causes. This book helps us as readers begin to notice the instances in which this type of symbolism surfaces in literature, and while the task does seem a bit counterintuitive when we are discussing reading for pleasure, we must always keep in mind a creed I wholeheartedly stand by: the best tastes in life are acquired tastes. Sometimes we have to work for joy.
As I mentioned earlier, Foster mentions that all of literature is under one big umbrella that is a larger story. I could not agree more, and being a Christian, I have some opinion as to what that story is. However, there is really no need to dive into that for our purposes. For our purposes it may be sufficient to view literature in this light: all literature is one grand inside joke with itself. Often when we are reading certain works, we are amazed at the amount of references given to earlier works. Dickens constantly alluded to Shakespeare who constantly drew on works from others. Chaucer, the father of English poetry, is known for his masterpiece The Canterbury Tales which draws heavily from similar Italian works by Giovanni Bioccaccio. If I began to list the instances in literary works where writers pull from Greek mythology I would be a very old man before I finished, and I would probably need three times that length of time to discuss the works that allude to literature’s greatest muse: The Bible.
I am fascinated at how better I appreciate the witty satire in literary works, the more I read. The more Shakespeare plays I read, the better I can enjoy the many obscure references in other works. I can laugh out loud in a deep, hearty, and true fashion whenever a reference is given to Falstaff or the immortal Pickwick.
Retaining the amount of obscure details in literary works into our small brains is like taking an ice cream bucket to the pacific ocean and commencing on fitting the entire body of water into it drop by drop. It cannot be done. This is the fun thing about literature however. Unlike that dreadful subject, arithmetic, literature has no definable ends. It is so vast and so grand, that we can continue filling up our small little bucket for a lifetime with only a few of those innumerable drops and be completely satisfied with what we find.
Only one chapter is devoted to this concept, but I think it truly applies to everything else in the book, and it is the most dangerous part of our reading: the discarding of ourselves. In his masterpiece Farenheit 451, the late Ray Bradbury argues that when we read a book we “play God to it.” That is, we have the privilege to react to what it says in a myriad of ways. His contrast in the novel is to the T.V. — we cannot “play God” to something like the T.V. as we can to a book. If you disagree with what the book says, put it down and do without it or grab a pen and argue with the writer. But another thing we can do when we read, and what Foster advises we do, is put away all our current beliefs, prejudices or biases, and adopt the attitude and mind of the writer or intended audience. This takes a certain level of skill for any person, maybe more so for those who have very strict religious beliefs like myself. When we work at this, however, the task becomes less terrifying to our beliefs, and we find that they are even strengthened in the process.
The example I can come up with is the current book I am reading, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce was raised Catholic, but like many went the way of the skeptic and critic, and this shows in his greatest work. As I read the novel, I never abandon my own Christian beliefs, yet at the same time I attempt as best I can to see Joyce’s world through the perspective of Ulysses, or an Irish skeptic — what this entire blog is about actually. The phenomenon is one in which paradoxically I am a skeptic and a Christian while reading parts of the novel and afterwards come back as a more well-rounded Christian because of it. The work was meant to be read in a certain way, and if we read contrary to its intentions, we probably will not get out of it what was originally intended: “We have to try to take the works as they were intended to be taken.” (As it is, I’m starting to wonder if one can only understand Ulysses with a porter or two close by).
This may not make any sense, and I suppose if that is the case, you can play God to this post, and do away with the notion altogether. Better to remain firm in your belief than mess around with something like this, unless you can successfully succeed in it. But Christians can be firm in their security, and this should not hinder our ability. We must in some sense read the Bible this way to properly feel the weight of many of the stories. The Good Samaritan and John 4 are good stories in and of themselves, but when we read them with the prejudices of a first century Jew, the weight of what is being said is magnified. Much like CS Lewis recently tweeted from the grave: “In great literature, I become a thousand different men but still remain myself.”
While the high school students are snoring, and the middle school students are causing more mayhem than Dean Winters, those precious second graders are ever ready for a story to be given them. The college student is much like a kindergartner. He has embarked on his own for the very first time, and though big in size, he realizes just how small he truly is, and at some point in those years at the university, he begins to regain that wonder he once had in second grade. He decides to put away learning for the test, to just get by, or to please his professor, and begin learning for the joy of learning. For the whole purpose of reading David Copperfield or Paradise Lost, Pilgrims Progress or Grapes of Wrath, is for the joy of the activity, and this increases as does our ability to read well. So the next time you pick up a novel, try to read like a professor, or a second grader, and perhaps then the text will be as clear as mud.
A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. — GK Chesterton