Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Science of reading

Here's Flannery O'Connor saying something sensible - not an everday occurrence, so worth noting:

People have a habit of saying, “What is the theme of your story?” and they expect you to give them a statement: “The theme of my story is the economic pressure of the machine on the middle class” or some such absurdity. And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story.

It seems to me that readers, at least at an academic level or on an educational basis, read from a stilted, stunted position. They are reading with the brain, purely analytically, and forget to engage their emotions. It becomes a technical exercise. But literature doesn't work that way. It insinuates itself into you and alters your thinking without you realising. All these poor students who are being forced to study 'racism in Heart of Darkness', instead of reading the bloody book for themselves and working out what it's about - something greater, grander, deeper - are missing the point entirely. It's like gettting them to look at picture of an orange and asking them to describe its flavour.

1 comment:

Alex Keegan said...

Not sure I agree, Tom.

First that "theme" (economic pressure" etc) ISN'T a theme..

Second, sure, of course we can read and "feel/sense/absorb" a story's meaning and we don't HAVE TO articulate it to get the full worth

But "talking of" the theme, working out the full message is just another way of growing a fuller understanding of the work.

Many great poems pass the poor reader (eg me) by because the poor reader doesn't know how to dig and find the meaning. But we can't say that learning how to get all the meaning makes the poem less. Surely it's the opposite? And if a poem is instant and in our face and easy to understand, can it have depth?