I’m currently reading Booklife and one thing that he mentions is the idea that school literature programs have made people bad readers. At first I was somewhat taken aback by this assertion, but as I read more about what his premise was, I started to agree with him.
In a nutshell: in literature classes in high school and college we are taught to read literature with an eye towards what is not written. In other words, you’re supposed to find the allegory, the symbolism, the hidden meanings.
Doing this is fun because for one thing it’s a pretty creative way of reading. If the meaning you are positing is “hidden” then the fact that no one else can see it just proves your point more. In fact, as long as you can argue your interpretation effectively it doesn’t matter that no one else can see it. If you’re persuasive enough, everyone will see it (if only to get you to stop harping at them).
But what does this mean for reading later?
If you’re always looking for the hidden meaning in something, then there’s a good chance you’ll miss the overt meaning.
In High School, I had to read the Hemingway story “Hills Like White Elephants“. This story stuck in my head because it was the first time I ever really understood what people were seeing when they found these hidden meanings. (Thank you Mr. Duncanson.) I’m not saying that I really believed they were there, but we read that story so many times that I started to believe that the story might have actually been about elephants – not just descriptively titled.
My question to that class is, do you remember what the story was about, what the text said? In other words, not the pregnancy, or the idea that the character was trying to talk her into an abortion. None of that was actually said. Do you remember what the scene was? My guess is that most people don’t remember, because we got so hung up in the hidden story. Where was it set? What were they doing?
To badly mangle another quote: “sometimes and elephant is just an elephant”. Perhaps if we started reading things looking for the un-hidden meaning first we might have an easier time understanding what people are trying to tell us.
Why I Like Science Fiction
If you read most scifi books with an eye to what is said, and not what is not said, you’ll get the basics of most books. Literary snobs might argue that that makes the books less interesting – but I find them plenty interesting. And they don’t have to be obfuscated to hold my attention.
Don’t get me wrong, in re-reading “Hills Like White Elephants” 25 years after my first read, I was profoundly moved by the story. Most of the allegory that we discovered in that long-ago class has disappeared into where ever memories go when they aren’t used. And I suspect that a lot of the reason I found it difficult at age 17 was because of my age and lack of experience. But I still enjoyed the story first as a description of a couple sitting in a foreign train station, waiting for a train, and discussing their life together (or not) and what they were going to do.