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
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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Back to Inertia, June 18