The point of this post is simple: The interpretation of literary texts is something we must be taught. It is not "natural." Though, by convention, it is often referred to as "reading", it is quite different from plain old reading. That simple, and seeminly obvious, point kicked up more conversation than I had anticipated when I posted it in The Valve in mid-December, 2005. You might want to check that out. I've made a few revisions for this re-posting.
One must learn to read. It doesn't come naturally; it requires explicit instruction. In this context - that is, of this blog devoted to literary criticism and its vicissitudes - reading has a special sense beyond simply, well, reading a text. In its acquired sense, to read means something like to provide commentary and analysis of a text in which its meaning is explicitly stated. The assumption seems to be that there is a meaning - or many meanings - that are there, but not present in the surface of the text. They are hidden somewhere deep inside the text. Reading in this sense too must be learned; it is not natural. Let us call these reading1, mere reading, and reading2, interpretive reading, respectively.
Much of literary theory has to do with the relationship between reading1 and reading2. Typically reading1 leaves no traces of itself in the primary text. By contrast, reading2, by definition, must leave traces, not in the primary text, but in one or more secondary texts framed as commentary on one or more primary texts. Practitioners of reading2 sometimes think of their activity as one of enriching (a somewhat quaint-sounding notion) or providing a deeper understanding of the primary text, perhaps for the benefit of those who engage only in reading1, but certainly for the benefit of other practitioners of reading2. Some practitioners of reading2 even assert that, though the words are different, the meanings they elaborate in their secondary texts really are in the primary texts, in some form. Other practitioners no longer believe that, suspecting that reading2 is, in part, a way of smuggling meanings into texts that come from somewhere else. These critics frame their readings2 in different ways.
It is worth noting that reading2, that is, written interpretive discussion, is a relatively recent activity. To be sure, it has been common for religious texts since ancient times. The central texts of Judiasm, Islam, Buddhism, and so forth, are encrusted with layers of commentary, and commentary on commentary–an activity that continues to this day. But interpretive commentary on secular texts that is routine and extensive, that is institutionalized (in colleges and universities), is a product of the 20th Century. And yet somehow literary culture managed to survive and thrive without it.
For myself, I do not believe that interpretive reading ever recovers what one encounters in reading1. I do not quite know what the relationship between the two types of reading is beyond the fact that one cannot do reading2 without doing reading1. In the long term, I am seeking a way of thinking about literature that dispenses with reading2 while being fully engaged with the importance that literature has for individuals and societies. That is to say, I am seeking what I have come to call a naturalist criticism.
But, I'm getting ahead of myself. That's only where I'm headed. That's not where I am now, in this post.
What interests me at the moment is simply to activate a sense of what is involved in learning to perform reading2 and correlatively to remind us that it is an accessory. One of the occupational hazards of the lit crit business is that you are constantly tempted to be a critic while reading any and all texts, seeing any and all plays or movies. You thus begin to lose any sense of simply reading1. Any act of reading1 is potentially an occasion for reading2, leading some critics even to suspect that reading2 is necessary to reading1.
Let me recall a time when reading1 was all I could do. That's when I came to love reading.
When I was in my middle teens, for example, I picked up a copy of Howard Fast's historical novel, Spartacus (I don't remember whether this was before or after I had seen the movie). It was a rather long book, but, as I recall, I read it in a single session that took me through the night. No doubt my mind was making all sorts of inferences while I was reading. When I was done I no doubt had some recollection of the story and could recount it, or fragments of it, and could answer questions about it. But I could not have done anything approaching an acceptable "reading" or "interpretation" of the book. I simply didn't know how to do that.
It took me two or three years of hard work in college to become fluent in writing 10-page papers containing acceptable readings of individual texts. And it wasn't until my fourth year that I felt comfortable engaging with a text on my own terms.
When I first studied literature in college I was pretty much at the mercy of the last interpretation I had read (or had heard in lecture). I simply didn't have a conceptual space in which I could arrange and compare two or three readings and make judgments about their relative merits regardless of the order in which I read them. Even when I had internalized enough concepts and strategies to furnish an intepretive space I found it easier to have someone else "break open" the text for me by providing a reading (which I consumed either through lecture or reading). Once I had encountered one or two interpretations I could then head out on my own, applying my knowledge of psychology, philosophy, and whatever else to the job.
Thus, I learning to read2 I began by imitating the strategies of my teachers and of the critics I read. I assume, though perhaps I am mistaken in this, that most critics have had to learn their craft in much the same way. We learn a large collection of critical moves, which we then apply to the texts. Some of these moves may be uninformed by any explicit theory while others are explicitly derived from some philosophical, psychological, or social scientific body of thought. It seems to me that this body of inferential moves, and the texts we produce to convey these moves to others, is different from the inferential moves I made while reading Spartacus a year or three before I began learning how to produce explicit interpretations.
We sometimes talk as though these professional modes of reasoning, that is to say reading2, involve the examination of the (largely unconscious) processes of reading1. I doubt that. I think that's mostly a manner of talking, of framing what interpritive readings assert about primary texts. I am interested in the processes involved in reading1. I see no way to get at them that does not involve a great deal of theory. But not necessarily theory of the sort that is currently taught and read in departments of literature.