Yesterday I focused on the dictionary as the best desert island book part of W.H. Auden’s quote. Today, let’s consider the first part of the quote:
Though a work of literature can be read in a number of ways, this number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical order; some readings are obviously ‘truer’ than others, some doubtful, some obviously false, and some, like reading a novel backwards, absurd. That is why, for a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways.
I am fairly confident that we can all agree about a book having a finite number of readings–interpretations, ways of understanding it, arguments. But how in agreement is the book blogosphere on there being a hierarchical order of readings from truer to doubtful to false and absurd? In past meanderings I have come across posts that argue all readings are equally valid. I have also been to book discussions with the same prevailing belief. But such a belief makes it difficult to talk about books, to disagree with a reading, and darn near impossible to learn how to be a better reader.
I do believe that there is a hierarchy, or maybe continuum is a better word, of readings. There is no one right reading of a book, but there are many truer readings to use Auden’s word. A good reading has to be supported by the book itself, one must be able to point to parts of the text as evidence to support one’s opinion. Also, there needs to be an accumulation of evidence. It is not enough to say a book is bad because I didn’t like the protagonist. I must delve into the book and show the protagonist is nothing but a two-dimensional stock character operating on cliches. Likewise, it is not good enough to call a book a masterpiece just because I enjoyed it.
Here is a question, is it the responsibility of readers, especially book bloggers, to help each other become better readers? And if so, how do we go about doing that? If we have not read the book being discussed it is hard to say more than, “wow, this sounds good!” But it is possible to do more than that by asking a question about the book or an observation made by the blogger. I am guilty of taking the lazy way out a lot of the time, but now and then I will ask a question about the book and I must say, even for having not read the book under discussion, I suddenly feel more engaged, more interested, more connected.
Then of course, there are books I have read. Again, I am guilty of being lazy and saying things like, “I loved this book too!” But sometimes I might comment on how I read the book differently and suddenly there is a conversation. I must say I like it when people make respectful comments questioning my reading. My first feeling when I see comments like that is to feel bad or indignant. It is not a comfortable feeling to be questioned. But then I tell myself to not be stupid and I take time to consider the comment and make a response and in the process I find I learn something new about the book. And if the conversation continues for a bit I might even change my opinion because the evidence given in response turns out to point in a different direction than I thought. These are always learning moments and I value them because they help me become a better reader.
Tom at Wuthering Expectations and Teresa at Shelf Love have inspired great conversation about comments and disagreement. And in a way I suppose I am talking about the same thing. But I don’t want to focus on the comments, rather our responsibility as readers to one another.
I don’t think I have ever come across anyone who doesn’t want to be a better reader but it seems the onus is always on the individual to do something about it. And one should. But how? Sure there are books and while they can and do offer good advice it is kind of all in a vacuum. There is also reading professional critics. And while this is really useful it can sometimes feel like an expert telling me what to think. The best way to become a better reader is by talking to other readers and when one is no longer in college this can be tricky. If you are lucky enough to belong to a book group that is more than a social club then you have a great opportunity to learn. Bloggers have a good opportunity too but it relies on the willingness of others to say more than “great post!”
This post has gone where I did not see it going, but I have come to a point where I feel like I need to make a pledge. Not a promise, but a pledge. I can’t promise I won’t ever be lazy in my comments. I can, however, pledge to do my best to reply to comments here and on other blogs in a thoughtful and engaged way. I owe it to myself and to other bloggers/readers to help create the kind of engaged book community that we all long for.