fiction files redux discussion

How to Read

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message 1: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Mar 07, 2010 07:15AM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
I know it sounds like kind of a silly topic but I think about this a lot when I go to read a book.

As an English major in college, I was well-versed in literary theory. What kind of paper do you want? Historicist? Feminist? Deconstructionist - using who, Derrida, Foucault? Freudian? How about Jung (a favorite then and now)? Take your pick! I had the patter down.

I can still read for theory, just barely. It doesn't feel genuine to me. The problem is its myopic view, in my opinion. That said, once you're trained to read a text a certain way, can you ever totally escape it?

I had a couple of writing professors in college who used to say things to me that had the general air of: How would you feel if someone only read your work to figure out how you felt about your mother? You need to write things people connect with. That's the most important thing.

I was thinking about this as I read the Salinger thread here, and Light in August for the second time. What's my approach? The first time around, my approach was attentive to the enth degree: I was reading a Great Book, and it deserved my complete focus. I read pages at a time out loud to get the poetry of the language. I re-read whole chapters, 2, 3 times. I also used my typical "naive" approach so that I would stay away from the academic impulse of critiquing the view of women, or race, etc.

The second time, since I knew what to expect from the language and plot, I read for connection to and understanding of the characters.

Do you all have an approach when you pick up a book? Or maybe you have one you aren't thinking about? Do you have different approaches for different kinds of books?

message 2: by Jim (new)

Jim | 27 comments the book dictates how I read it

with War and Peace, I loved and focused on the parts where Tolstoy wrote his theory of history observations and often re-read them but then just enjoyed the characters lives and interactions at other times

message 3: by R.a. (new)

R.a. (brasidas1) | 79 comments Ditto on the "Critical Theory" stuff. Yet, a writer's style, language, word choice, etc., tend to "signal" these things, it seems.

I think I read with a "writer's reading" which is an exciting way to read, methinks. I can't help but look at "nuts and bolts."

Any patent "signification" strikes me after the fact--only when I reach "FIN." Also, if it's a "Critical Edition," (like Norton), I intentionally DO NOT read the Critical Section until some time has passed AFTER I've read the narrative. Although I appreciate critical essays, I enjoy discovering the "work" w/ just me (and my poor brain). I do, however, read the background and intro's beforehand.

I may have had a repelling "gut" reaction to "Critical Theory" as the school I went to reorganized (at the time) its whole undergraduate English curriculum based on Post-Structural / Industrial theory which included Deconstruction. I believe the "pendulum" swung back to a more conventional or more encompassing approach a few years back. And, although I appreciate what these various critical "schools" or approaches can do for a work (especially take them from the "dusty shelf" and see them "anew), I can't help but feel that any pre-conceived or pre-figured "lens" only "bear out" what one's eye "wants." to see.

And, despite your having a "training" or background like mine, I still am quite poor in offering any advice.


message 4: by Patty, free birdeaucrat (new)

Patty | 896 comments Mod
i read novels straight through, following the plot and characters.

once i get into it enough to start to understand the situation and have insight into the characters, i start also reading the novel against itself. do the actions of the characters make sense given what i already know about them? based on what has happened so far, what are the characters motivations for a given sequence of actions? (etc)

and then, late in the first pass through a good novel, or sometimes days after finishing a great novel, i start to puzzle out what the project of the novel was/is and whether or not it drew any conclusions, and what conclusions i myself have, based on what i know about life and the world and people + what i know about the characters and the situation of the novel.

and that last bit can go on for weeks, months or years, sometimes. i'm still working out what i think the problem posed by The House of Mirth is, and whether or not the novel comes to any conclusions about that problem, and if yes, what are they? and how do those conclusion compare to my own?

message 5: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
I'm totally going to segue right out of my own conversation and talk about HoM. I think that Wharton's "problems" typically center around what a woman's life can look like without a husband. And whether or not the kind of marriage women of her class entered into could ever be "happy" in any way. And what marriage really *is* -- and what happens to women who step outside of the boundaries -- answer: they are severely punished and sometimes die for their transgressions. For my part, I have lots of conclusions... many of them around class and property, how our perception and purpose around marriage has shifted, changing where we stand now.

OK. Enough already. :)

All that said, I like this approach. I do that too - think about novels for a really long time after I read them.

message 6: by Patty, free birdeaucrat (new)

Patty | 896 comments Mod
[HoM segue continued... those aren't the kind of "problems" I mean, or at least I don't think they are. So far, my best distillation of the "problem" of HoM is, "How is it possible to have and live with an ethics which is primarily aesthetic?" or possibly "Is an aesthetic ethic compatible with (or desirable within) the need to survive?":]

message 7: by [deleted user] (last edited Mar 09, 2010 01:35PM) (new)

That was a painful read! (HoM)

message 8: by Rhonda (last edited Mar 12, 2010 07:07AM) (new)

Rhonda (rhondak) back to reading:
As with the familiar Bacon quote concerning the tasting, swallowing and digesting of literature, I fear there may be even further categories. However groups of threes seem to be the easiest to recall and these three seem to work well enough. Though many things are enjoyable to read for pushing emotional limits, others truly fascinating for a quiet afternoon or two, perhaps most are not so serious that we must take copious notes. The last class of books, those to be digested, resides in a rare category indeed. They truly demand our careful consideration.

On the other hand, determining whether such a book is of a type uses the inductive logic for which Bacon was also famous. We taste or sample the pages of a given book before we decide what kind of book it is… and we are rarely wrong. We tend to like, at any given moment, simply what we like without explanation or reason, albeit often confusing what we like with that which is truly good. Thus not only do we think that some are to be digested, but most just to be tasted for their little thrills, alas without moving much more than our senses and, sadly, sans notes.

Thus while some may even suppose Twilight belongs in the realm of great literature with a great deal to say, others would suggest that Hegel or Schopenhauer were hardly worth printing. Someone suggested the other day that One Hundred years of Solitude was only worthy of chimney dross which made me shudder to my core. Truly the world seems disposed to more of this fuzzy thinking, value turned on its head, as it were, but that is perhaps too judgmental for polite company and I digress.

There are some books which I enjoy repeating just because I find the writing delightful, like the art of one telling a joke well. Still those ought to be divided too, some for the pure thrill of the writing and others for the lessons involved. My uncle read John D McDonald simply because he liked the characters and when I would complain that he had read a particular story before, he would smile and suggest that he liked to live in the world the author created for a little while. I think we often wish to live in the worlds our writers create, although sometimes it is not all that pleasant and requires a sincere effort of our will. That is perhaps the best use of our limited reading time on the planet, unless it remains distasteful afterwards rather than rewarding. The best of anything I have found requires a concerted effort, but not all concerted efforts yield great results.

When I first left the university, I was rarely without a pad and pen with which to take notes from books or whatever I happened to read. My friends would joke that I would never get married because no one wanted to watch a woman feverishly copying down various statements to be savored or examined at a later date. Fortunately it created a somewhat fascinating, if perhaps overly verbose, dinner companion… and they were wrong. To this day I still have notebooks with cryptic little notes or greater statements which my pen scribbled without noting the source or at least one which I can any longer read. Still I feel that it was worthwhile if I return to them and find a thought worthy of consideration… which I do in most cases except those in which I could not believe someone should say a thing so inane… and wished to save it as proof in case others disputed me. Revisiting great thoughts in a book is much the joy of visiting old friends.

Still to this day, I read almost everything with a pad and pen in hand. Though I enjoy writing in my own books, almost all filled with a “nota bene” or five, I most often write my comments on a pad of paper or notebook. This not only allows me to return to reading at a later time, but also allows me a kind of review technique before I have a discussion on such, should an opportunity occur. As a reader, of course, I find this preferable to running down one’s friends not present. It has the added benefit of keeping them as well.

Keeping good notes seems imperative these days unless one wishes to indulge in accumulating books which are read rather than learning much by them. It is merely a matter of setting one’s mind to it and then learning what it is one must write. Thus even if one is disposed to celebrating third rate literature, there is always something worthy of the recall in almost everything. Thus reading while taking notes seems far better a way to survive the inevitability of confusion several years down the road. On the other hand, unless one consults these notes perhaps it is as my uncle suggested, a simple feast for existence in a world which one can visit from time to time at will. I cannot imagine a world better, however, than one with the options of residence or cursory visitation, as one sees fit.

message 9: by R.a. (new)

R.a. (brasidas1) | 79 comments The more of Wharton I read, the more I love her work.

Shakespeare [Hamlet:]: " . . . who shall 'scape whipping? . . ."

Wharton's apparent answer: No-one.

But then, as "cheery" as they are, I've tended to like the Naturalists.

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