Thursday, March 08, 2007

How to read a book

In today's Salon, Tom Lutz writes about a rash of new books that examine how one should read a novel. These books are united by their authors' distaste for academe, for the college English departments that have built a jargon-laden, "ism"-oriented discourse that perverts the true value of reading literature. Lutz does not tolerate this analysis. He remains skeptical of the "new criticism" approach which the authors of the how-to books embrace. Founded in the 1940s (though surely not wholly original), new criticism focuses on the "close read" of a text and eschews consultation of extra-textual sources--particularly biography--to analyze literature. Lutz criticizes the writers of the how-to books for clinging steadfastly to the dogmas of new criticism in order to bolster their literary authority against the academic critics.

Lutz is certainly right that it is difficult to prescribe a method in which to read and not always interesting to read the prescriptions. The insistences of the how-to writers that a good reader engages only "the text itself" is also dubious. Like many theories about the irreducible, new criticism is initially alluring but is based on some false premises, namely, the idea that a text can be distilled to "the words on a page" and nothing more. Every reader comes to a book with different experiences and therefore will extract different things from the book regardless of the fact that the words themselves are the same. What's different is the person interpreting the words. An attempt to enforce a uniform reading of literature is precisely the wrong way to broaden and enhance literary discourse and enrichment.

On the other hand, the methods of new criticism do have much to offer. In my own experience, I gained much more as a reader using close read methods like analysis of metaphor, attention to diction (word choice) and syntax (sentence structure), discernment of tone, etc. than I did reading literary criticism. Close reading requires that the student actually support claims with text-based evidence, which forces him to go beyond the vague suppositions that are often thrown around when discussing literature. Comfort in supporting one's claims with evidence is eternally valuable and should be central to the teaching of English, a discipline which its students unfortunately often struggle to find useful, even though at its best, it upholds the valuable skill of strong communication. Use of the techniques of new criticism to read promote the development of this skill and need not be shunted off, especially if they are only to be replaced by Marxist, Freudian, or feminist critiques.

One last thing that Lutz scolds the how-to-read folks for: bemoaning the "glut" of books published. One writer, John Sutherland complains of the "world in which millions of books are dumped in the marketplace at once," which like Lutz, I hardly think a problem. Isn't the easy availability of books an encouraging sign of a literate culture? Would Sutherland be happy with the opposite, a world in which few books were published? Is it even possible for any society to so refine its manuscripts so that only the great books are published, as he seems to desire? I am comfortable with an argument that the publishing industry overhypes a small selection of books and simultaneously neglects some great literature, but that does not mean that fewer books should be published. Anyone who criticizes a book glut should himself question whether he need publish yet another how-to-read a book tract.


Anonymous said...

Great distillation of that article, which I had read, and explanation of close-text reading. I do wonder, where is the place of context, i.e., the author's life and time? That always sheds light for me, but I'm wondering how much attention it gets in schools, colleges, and academic departments these days. ~ hm

Chris said...

Key sentence: "In the end, Dear Reader, these books themselves are part of that dread project: literary criticism written by professors."

I've always been more of a "both/and" type more than an "either/or." Like anything else, it's probably best to know them all. The various "isms" though can be really damaging if you get too enthusiastic - one ends up reading really bad literature looking for just so you can find another "insight" into the trinity of "race/class/gender."

As for context, my best professors and best classes always combined the literature with some historical, philosophical context. As with other things, the context, the theory and whatever else should supplement the novel, not overtake it.