Do Not Disturb

An Essay about the Practice of Interpreting Literature, by Stephanieee

The practice of delving deeply into the meaning of books, trying to decipher the author's "message," has always made me rather uncomfortable. When I sit down with a book, I don't want to analyze, interpret and intellectualize it to bits. I simply want to READ it.

Often, we treat books as if they were chicken carcasses, picking them apart and pulling away the flesh in our eagerness to find the bone. And, characters are turned into case histories. Can't we just enjoy them for who they are instead of worrying about why they are that way? Besides, I think the author gives us as much insight into a character's personality as we need to know. We don't have to poke our analytical noses any further into someone else's business.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevski presents his cast of characters and their personality traits in a clear and forthright manner. We don't have to burn out a brain cell to recognize the behavior patterns of the virtuous Alyosha, the tortured Dmitri, the lusty Grushenka, the schizophrenic Ivan or the delightfully decadent father. Dostoevski spells it out for us. Certainly there are many psychological factors at work in this book (and many others.) I merely submit for consideration the possibility that all of that can be absorbed just by chewing it up and swallowing it, without waiting for it to go through the rest of the digestive process before we can savor it.

Close scrutiny of a book can often lead the examiner to make discriminating evaluations of the material. If those negative criticisms happen to get published, and I read such a critique before I read the book, the reviewer's opinion can have an adverse effect on my own judgement, and in turn, my enjoyment of the text. It might even affect whether or not I read the book at all, and that could be a real loss.

This business of criticizing books reminds me of the saying, "If you can't say something nice about somebody, don't say anything at all." Nobody's perfect, not even the person doing the criticizing. So, it really bothered me when W. Somerset Maugham said of Pride and Prejudice, "No one has ever looked upon Jane Austen as a great stylist." No one? How does HE know? Did he ask EVERYBODY? Any book that begs to be re-read as much as this one does has to have at least a certain amount of style, I would think. But, the issue here is not "style." To me, Pride and Prejudice is wonderful not because of the author's technique, but because I never fail to delight in the infatuations, flirtations, alienations, and, finally, consummations of Austen's unforgettable characters, particularly Elizabeth and Darcy.

Charles Dickens is criticized by G.K. Chesterton for giving David Copperfield the "wrong ending." Certainly, many of us have been disappointed by the ending of a book, but to say it is the WRONG ending is going a bit too far, in my estimation. The author himself is the only one fit to make that particular judgement. After all, it is HIS book, and HIS ending. And, why dwell on the ending when there are so many tasty tidbits to relish along the way as Dickens leads us towards the conclusion, satisfactory or not? Just becoming acquainted with the book's namesake and the inimitable Uriah Heep is enough for me.

Don't get me wrong. I recognize the need to study books in depth, and understand the purpose in doing so. It is most important to collect as much information as we can about as many things as possible in order to broaden the scope of our horizons. But, in this instance, I can't help but wonder if the pure pleasure derived from reading for the sake of entertainment won't be diminished by too much excavation. Referring to Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien himself declared, "As for any inner meaning or ‘message,' it has in the intention of the author none." Enough said.

When it comes to books, I believe that we can reach a diagnosis without conducting an autopsy. Disemboweling is not a pretty sight. To those of you who enjoy dissecting a work of literature as if it was a laboratory specimen, I say, "Go ahead!" As for me. I prefer to sit back and enjoy a good book in peace. The ENTIRE piece!


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