Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How we read ... a lit theory question ...

I was listening to a talk this morning by a rather inspiring Mormon Bibliophile, Sterling W. Sill. I sincerely adore that man. In fact, it's hard for me to explain just how much Brother Sill influenced my life growing up. His dozens of books introduced me to the world of literature as it can (and should) be ... and prompted me to begin delving into worlds I may never had entered without his help.*

In this talk, given at BYU over thirty years ago, Brother Sill talks about the common link between "Bottle and Books." He begins by discussing two famines mentioned by Amos: (1) a famine of bread and a thirst for water and (2) a famine for hearing the word of God.

Bottles, Brother Sill explains, were invented shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century in France and allowed humanity to, largely, mitigate the problems associated with the first type of famine. Similarly, books have allowed us to capture the thoughts of the greatest thinkers the world has known and preserve them for future generations.

As Brother Sill explained:

Without books, God is silent, justice dormant, philosophy lame.

John Milton said, "Books are not . . . dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy . . . of that living intellect that bred them."

This, of course, we all agree with. We are, after all, Bibliophiles in name, word, and deed. We understand the why of reading.

But later on in his talk, Brother Sill hit on a topic that I've always considered just as fascinating: The how of reading.

While discussing King Henry's famous St. Cripin's Day speech in Henry V, Brother Sill prefaced a quotation from the play with the following observation:
That is, this is Shakespeare edited by Brother Sill. When Shakespeare does not say it as I think he ought to, I just cross off what he said and write it in as I think he should have said it. I do not read Shakespeare to please Shakespeare; I read Shakespeare to please me, and if he does not say it to please me I change it so that it does.
Now, a lot of book lovers would cry "BLASPHEMY!" to hear something like that. But is it?

It's been a long time since I've discussed any lit theory, but I initially tend to agree with Brother Sill. After all, we read books largely for our own benefit, understanding, and edification ... so why shouldn't we have the right create the story, words, or worlds that books offer "in our own image," as it were?

I guess one response is that, if we simply shut out those parts of the story that we don't like, we are missing on a key opportunity to expand our vision and experience a world we may never have dreamed of, i.e., the world the author is trying to show us.

So, with those preliminary thoughts in mind, my question for all of you is:

As readers, how much stock should we put in the author's purpose or intent as opposed to our own (I know there are names for each style of reading, but I can't seem to remember them at the moment)?

* NOTE: If you have the opportunity, you really must read some of his books. Many are available for $1-2 at Deseret Industries (if you have one near you ... lucky Utah people). If not, try Amazon.


  1. Off the cuff:

    I don't particularly agree. I guess it depends on what arena the reading is taking place in. If it is for self-satisfaction, then I think it is completely appropriate to impose your own meaning on a text, or even to use a text as a basis and add your own thoughts to it -- as Brother Sill does. But, a big pet peeve of mine is when people misinterpret a text, and then use their misinterpretation in a public forum. It happens all the time at general conference, and I smile, grin and bear it.

    Also, even though I know most lit theory folk would roll their eyes at the notion of authorial intent, shouldn't we give the author a little, tiny smidgeon of authority?

    Like I said, I think it depends on the forum. I'm sure we've all sat in lit classes where the random girl (I'm sorry, it is usually a girl) goes on for ten minutes about how she related such-and-such to her personal life -- when really the class is examining orientalism.

  2. I had a conversation about this is the infamous McCuskey's class. (It kind of applies to THE DEAD POET SOCIETY scene where they discuss good vs bad poetry). There are so many ways to read books (namely feminism, historicism, globalism, psychoanalysis, deconstructionism, etc, etc, etc). I think as a reader, we have to determine the reason that we are actually reading the book. Are we reading the books for us? or for the authors?
    As a student, I felt like many times, I was reading the books for the professor. I looked at the text through the professor's eyes with the intention of writing the paper that they requested/required. In that case, there is absolutely no reason for me to care WHY or HOW the book was written or what the author was really trying to tell me.
    Last month I watched a movie named BRIGHT STAR (the love story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne) while holding a copy of BRIGHT STAR the book (which contained the poetry and love letters). In one aspect, I was fascinated because I felt like I understood more of what Keats was trying to get me to understand through poetry. Seeing the actual setting, seeing the emotion, seeing the little things they did to show their love…it was pretty intense. However, I’m still not sure that I understand completely the relationship that Keats and Brawne actually shared because I only saw what Jane Campion interpreted. I’d like to give them authorial intent, but JOHN AND FANNY HAVE BEEN DEAD FOR NEARLY 200 YEARS!!! They’re not around to clarify. Is it really possible to really understand what they wanted to say without asking them?
    In many ways, I think writers write to influence people. In many ways, I think writers write to deal with life as it whirls around them. I think some others have a “what you will” kind of attitude. Personally, if someone reads something and is influenced for good, I think there is literary success. The fact that someone is reading and not catching the condensed version on some screen is impressive these days. At least they’re going to the original source to form their own opinions rather than seeing the show through director-shaded glasses.