“I don’t recall that when I was in high school or college, any novel was ever presented to me to study as a novel. In fact, I was well on the way to getting a Master’s degree in English before I really knew what fiction was, and I doubt if I would ever have learned then, had I not been trying to write it. I believe it’s perfectly possible to run a course of academic degrees in English and to emerge a seemingly respectable Ph.D. and still not know how to read fiction.” – Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners
Pretty early on in my education, at least by my freshman year of high school, I felt very strongly that the way my English teachers taught us to “read” literature was wrong. That their approach to the short stories and poems and novels we read was dismally erroneous. That the questions they asked were ludicrous. So ludicrous it was hard to even answer them. Not because I couldn’t figure out what the teacher was looking for. But because I felt so strongly that the questions were even less worth answering than they were worth asking (Yeah, I’ve never been an easy student).
These questions are what Walter Kaufman aptly calls “tone deaf” questions. Questions like: What was the author’s intention for this novel? As if there could possibly be but one and as if what the book means is limited entirely to what was intended (Any good book, achieves much more than an author could intend for it. For it takes on a life of its own and anything that is living has an infinite quality to it). Or: What is the theme? As if, again, there could be but one. As if the meaning of a novel could or should be so incredibly narrow.
(Even a good speech or sermon has many themes).
I took issue with more than just the narrow nature of these questions. I took issue with what they imply about reading. These questions, this approach to literature, treat a novel as an object to be experienced instead of encountered. As a means to some sort of end such as knowledge or enlightenment or even amusement and escape. Though this is a way to read, though a novel can achieve all of these ends and sometimes simultaneously, this is not a good way to read. Even before reading Martin Buber (a Jewish thinker/lay theologian whose book I and Thou I’m revisiting), I agreed with his notion that one should approach a piece of art, a work of fiction, more like a person than an object.
Reading is more like a relationship than a lesson. As Kaufman says (in a sort of paraphrase of Buber’s ideas), “We must learn to feel addressed by a book, by the human being behind it, as if a person spoke directly to us. A good book or essay or poem is not primarily an object to be put to use, or an object of experience: it is the voice of You speaking to me, requiring a response.” I would even correct him a little by saying that the voice of a novel is not even necessarily the voice of the author, or is more than the voice of the author. That a book is a distinct You.
If you’ve noticed in my blog how often I reference literature and films, it is because I feel compelled to respond. Though sometimes I use art didactically, I think that primarily what I am sharing is not its use but my relationship with it. How it has spoken into my life. Ways in which we remain in dialogue. I share aspects of these encounters not because this approach to literature/art is unique to me. Or because no one else has or could come to these conclusions. But because there is a value in allowing others to share in our encounters. To allowing that which has illuminated our lives to illuminate others’.
Back when I used to want to be a literature professor, it was because I wanted to help others learn to read well. At the very least, I wanted to be that rare teacher who wouldn’t make my students read the wrong way. Who would instead let the literature we read together breathe. That’s my hope in sharing these thoughts today. That I might illumine the living nature of literature and art. That I might highlight that they are not meant to be hammers but light and a relation.