June 11, 2014

What matters most about reading... (Or...why "reader-response" criticism is at the center of my classroom and my own reading life.)

Monday's "Literary Fortune" is a little bit late (sorry)...but here you go - take from it what you will (after all, you are the reader).

"...your humor's a tough dialect
for me to master, a tempo-drunk song
with a jazz of laughter
I can't quite catch
the rhythm and swing to."

(from Diane Ackerman's I Praise My Destroyer)

Literature should speak to us. It should tell us secrets that only we can hear. The story or the poem isn't the words we see on the page, it's what we fill in between them. Our own stories. Our own needs. Our own history.

Reading is a full contact mental sport. It requires that both the reader and the thing being read have something to share. And sometimes, it requires that the reader find the thing being read at the "right time". Like maybe, you only get the key to this particular book when you have done or seen or felt "x". Reading is also an intimate activity. One between you and the author, what the author has written and what it means to you.  A person can read a book when she is 15 and then again when she is 25 and quite literally have read a completely different story...because her story is different. What the reader brings to the table is paramount. 

I remember sitting in literary criticism classes in college. I also very vividly remember the professors slamming "reader-response" as being completely useless when explaining or analyzing a text. Seriously? How can one possibly take the reader (and the reader's interpretation) out of the equation? Literary critics are human (I think), so there is no real way to take human emotion, human error, background knowledge, or personal opinion out of an analysis of a book. And why would anyone want to. A book isn't a lifeless artifact to be explained by a scientist. It is a living thing waiting to be changed and explored by a reader. Even if a book could be explained scientifically (and believe me, in those lit. crit. classes, I had to attempt it several times in long, boring papers that almost made me hate reading), it makes the book into a patient to be diagnosed. And then what? We cure it? We share our research with the world, expose the book's "meaning" to potential readers who will now have no reason to read the book other than to share or refute the former scientist's findings?

Ugh. No, I'll take my book of poetry with tea, please. And my novel with a glass of wine. And I'll construct my own meaning, thank you. And yes, over a beer, I'll talk with you about what I think it means...what I liked...what I found. But, in all reality, when I do so, I'm telling you more about myself than about the book or the author's intention. 

And I'll continue to teach reader-response in my classroom, too (English Department be damned!). Don't worry, I'll teach the substance of literature as well...the history that surrounds the story (because, after all...if I am a literary critic at all, I believe most in the ideals of  Biographical criticism, New Historical criticism, or Sociological criticism), the beauty of the structure of text, literary devices and techniques, etc. I know my content. And I support the Common Core (believe me, it give teachers a hell of a lot more freedom than most standards-based programs to be the artists they really are), which encourages looking at a text objectively as an artifact and using text as evidence for claims. That's perfectly fine and useful.

But, I know most that what makes people want to read is the relationship they build with the text...the fun the have...the adventures they go on...the characters they come to care about...the information they learn...the secrets they find out...the escape the story provides.

That, ultimately, is what matters most about reading. 

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