Monday, December 23, 2019

How Should Literature Be Read?

How should literature be read and consumed?  Could we misread it?  Does interpretation change over time or person to person.  What do the major literary forms – poetry, short story, novel, plays, and literary non-fiction tell us about ourselves?

We get some food for thought on these matters in the weighty tome, The Handy Literature Answer Book:  An Engaging Guide to Unraveling Symbols, Signs and Meanings in Great Works, by Daniel S. Burt, Ph.D., and Deborah G. Felder.

“Great works of literature change over our lifetime because we change over our lifetime," They wrote: “Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn experienced at twelve is qualitatively different when experiencing it at twenty, thirty, forty, and so on…Instead, a new version of each great classic is waiting for each version of yourself that emerges with age.

This book poses powerful questions:
·         Why so we read literature?
·         Does literature help us live better?
·         Does reading literature make us better morally?
·         How can the benefits of reading literature be measured?
·         What role does escape play in literature?
·         Are re-readings of a book better than the original reading?
·         What is poetry?

This book also provides many answers and insights, such as these:

What Makes Literature “literature?
“What is deemed literature also is a collective agreement rather than a matter of personal taste.  Tradition and custom, that is, the collective wisdom of others both past and present, help to mold a contentious and shifting canon of literary worth, rising and falling like a literary stock market, reflecting long-and short-term value and current supply and demand.

“Literature serves to disorient and reorient the reader to truths, not necessarily from its faithful representation of experience but its creative repossession of experience in ways in which meaning and relevance radiate.”

What Is the Role Of The Reader In Literature?
“Readers are still left with the daunting challenge of interpretation:  assessing the text for meaning and significance in works of literature that by definition are multiple and complex.  Lacking a direct, secure route to meaning from either the author or the text, the reader is left with the challenge of interpretation: the analysis and evaluation of possible meanings suggested by the text.

“How does literature expand our experience?  Human beings are functionally prisoners of space and time.  We cannot physically be in two or more places at once or inhabit more than the present.  Other than in memory, the past is lost to us, and the future only takes shape in the present.  The limitations of space and time are immutable conditions of human life, or are they?  This is precisely what literature allows us to do:  evade the tyranny of space and time.  In works of literature, we are not bound to a single physical space but can simultaneously be here and there, widening our geographical reach to extend our knowledge and experience.  In works of literature, we can begin to see the world and ourselves from multiple vantage points that our physical restraints otherwise prevent.  But literature enhances our view not just from multiple vantage points in space but also from multiple perspectives.  You can only see the world through another’s eyes in literature.

What Was The Impact Of Book Publishing On The Development Of The American Novel?
“One crucial factor in the novel’s late development was the economic reality of American book publishing, which contributed significantly to the struggles of writers, particularly novelists, to emerge from the long shadow cast by the British.  Although a national copyright law was enacted in 1790, international copyright protection was not established until 1891, leaving American printers free to pirate the latest works by popular British novelists such as Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.  Because American readers could acquire the best of British writers in cheap reprints, there was little economic incentive for publishers to support American writers who expected to be paid.  Most American writers consequently found it difficult to survive by their writing: only those who produced works of exceptional distinction and popularity were rewarded.  The one market that was open to American writers was the many periodicals that could accommodate short fiction.  This is largely why the American short story, as practiced by Poe, Hawthorne, and others, preceded publication of America’s first great novels.”

What Do Poems Do?
“Poetry seems to come from some deep impulse humans have that needs expression; it arises when no other form of expression seems capable of conveying what the poet is thinking or feeling.  Many of us have had the experience of feeling great joy or emotional pain:  coming home for the holidays and feeling an overwhelming sense of well-being and happiness or feeling great sorrow and grief at a loss, such as a death of a loved one.  Attempting to verbalize those feelings is what poetry is about.  Poems may tell a story but they need not.  A poem can be only about a thought or a feeling, something both inconclusive and fleeting, in which the poem itself is an attempt to understand or come to terms with what prompted the emotion or thought.  Poetry is first and foremost an exploration into things unknown, giving it form, naming and visualizing a previous, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “airy nothing” and converting the abstract to the specific.

“At its most basic level, poetry allows us to give voice to what we are thinking and feeling, converting abstract emotions or ideas into a concrete setting or situation, expressed in powerful language that can communicate to another what we feel and think.”

You can’t read this large and probing book in one sitting, especially when it takes you into a deep, questioning mode on literary criticism, the relationship of form and content, reader and content, author and content, and historical context and content.

Perhaps this searching exploration goes too far.  Maybe we just need to enjoy a good book and take it on its own merits.  The more we have to delve into understanding writer intent, reader interpretation, historical relevance, or guessing on how words elicit emotional or psychological responses, the further we get from whatever the reader experiences as truth in the moment he or she reads a book.  That isn’t to say that we can’t go deeper than the text in front of us, but its worth begins with what’s on the page and not all that somehow attaches to it.  You don’t need a professor, critic or historian to tell you if you like and value a book, do you?

Books are an artform.  When I go to a museum, either a piece of art speaks to me or it doesn’t.  No amount of context can provide as part of emotion of imagination if the actual work doesn’t communicate something to me.  To know why someone is beautiful or a killer is not as important as believing one is beautiful or understanding one is a killer.  Sure, there are layers to peel and enjoy about a book or artwork – but only if that book or artwork appeals to me on its own.  Just saying.

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2019. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America.

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