Have you noticed that often nowadays either in the books themselves or in additional material available on-line there are “Discussion Questions” for groups reading novels? And have you noticed that often these questions address whether X acted rightly in any given situation, or if you were Y what would you have done? It’s somewhat debateable whether these kinds of discussion questions actually encourage close, analytical reading. And, let’s admit it, close, analytical reading sometimes seems like hard work even to those of us who confess to an addiction to reading. After all, I suspect that what first got us hooked was just wanting to know what happened next. When we were children with our torches under the bedclothes clandestinely trying to see if the Secret Seven actually caught the bad guy, we weren’t actually concerned about the context of our own reading, or the social demographic of the seven children involved. We certainly weren’t looking at Blyton’s sentence structure or patterns of metaphor.
Just as, so I’m told, a substance abuser eventually no longer really appreciates the substance upon which he or she is dependent, so the reader who reads only for escape risks losing his or her sense of the texture of the work he or she is reading. This is not to say that reading for relaxation, reading for escape or vicarious experience is necessarily always inadvisable. Far from it. That would be like saying that just because one really appreciates a méthode champenoise sparkling wine one can’t actually glug back a bottle of cider if one wants. Both have their place. But having a discriminating palate enables us to choose which beverage is most appropriate to which situation.
Similarly, having a discriminating palate with regard to what and how we read enables us to appreciate all texts more satisfyingly even though textual analysis may seem initially daunting. Is the skill becoming moribund?
“Like clog dancing, the art of analysing works of literature is almost dead on its feet”(ix). So asserts Terry Eagleton in his Preface to his relatively recently published How to Read Literature. As you may recall if you’re a regular reader of my blog, I actually bought this book back in May and have been delving into it from time to time ever since.
In five chapters covering “Openings,” “Character,” “Narrative,” “Interpretation, and “Value,” Eagleton aims to “provide readers and students with some of the basic tools of the critical trade” and “to show in the process that critical analysis can be fun, and in doing so help to demolish the myth that analysis is the enemy of enjoyment” (ix). He succeeds.
Even if you are an experienced and or professional reader, you will still enjoy Eagleton’s analyses. Drawing on texts as varied as A Passage to India, Great Expectations, Tom Jones, The Third Policeman, Waiting for Godot, Antigone, and the Harry Potter series just to name a few, Eagleton demonstrates how texts work and how the reader can engage with them. While taking the activity of careful reading very seriously, Eagleton addresses his subject with his usual wry humour; it will be a long time before I forget his analysis of “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”
Further, I have to admit, if I had not read this book, I would not have met with William McGonagall, “one of the most atrocious writers ever to set pen to paper” (205). Eagleton avers that McGonagall “with magnificent consistency . . . never deviates from the most abysmal standards. . . . Like the less competent performers on TV talent shows, the fact that he does not know how bad he is is part of his badness” (205). Oh dear. This where Eagleton ends: on a note of doubt asking “if Samuel Johnson could complain about some of Shakespeare’ most inventive imagery, is it entirely out of the question that one day McGonagall might be hailed as a major poet?” (206). He leaves us, neophyte analytical reader and experienced critic alike, with something to ponder.
In common with Eagleton, I suspect, I, too, am somewhat pessimistic about what we judge to be worthwhile and wonder how the future will define literary value, especially if the art of careful reading is lost. More selfishly, I wish I could be sure that when I was encouraging students to appreciate how “a text is a pattern of meaning, and patterns of meaning do not lead lives of their own” (46) that I was as lucid and as engaging as Eagleton is.