How Then Shall We Read? – An Apology for Literary Analysis

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Much has been made in recent years of the prime opportunity childhood presents to shape lifetime readers. Reading aloud, in particular, is the word on the street where methodology is concerned. With videos and entertainment on the cultural rise, parents no longer have the luxury of throwing a book at a child and hoping it will “take.” Now, they must read it to them, guide them, captivate, and verily, enchant them into the magical kingdom of imaginative literature.  Certainly, reading aloud may perform this function and a multitude of others that prove equally valuable. Experts cite cognitive development, auditory processing, sentence patterning, and increased vocabulary as immediate benefits, as well as strengthened parent/child relationships.

My own children recall story time with less statistics and more nostalgia. They mention the joy and comfort of the domestic scene: four littles flanking my side and perching on the back of the sofa, while two lucky victors claimed my lap. They would nestle in to hear the soft drone of my voice, breathing in the smells and the sounds of home while growing drowsy with the heavy sweetness of the atmosphere. Such idyllic stuff is sufficient, we think, to inculcate the joy of reading in the hearts of our children. Irrefutably, it is the Pablum that feeds them in their reading infancy. 

The question is, does pablum suffice for a lifetime? Certainly, reading aloud remains a useful portion of any education and a fine strategy for approaching its end goal, but is the warmth and entertainment of family story time the ultimate object of the reading project? In other words, what is good reading, and what good is reading anyway?

Is reading atmosphere? Is it peace? Is it a sedative? A diversion? If these define reading, any attempt to travel beyond the borders of mother’s lap prove vain. Yet, if mature reading is more than this, it might prove necessary to shake off the stupor, sit up straight, and buy a reading lamp. So too, our efforts may benefit from a straight-backed chair, a marking pencil, and business hours. If reading is thinking with an absent teacher, as Mortimer Adler suggests in his classic work, How To Read A Book, then readers must pursue it in such a way as to facilitate such concentration. 

In full support of reviving the read aloud (if indeed the pastime needs reviving) may I recommend that this activity be the genesis and not the terminus of parents’ efforts to foster the love of reading in children? There is a voice in the marketplace sounding an alarm against such mature reading. Beware of analysis, the voice warns; for, it kills the joy of reading that you have so painstakingly planted and nurtured in your children. In the interest of defining terms, if “analysis” signifies the kind of dissection postmodern deconstruction undertakes, I applaud the caveat. If, however, as I suspect, the term signifies scholarly attempts to observe an author’s art with an eye to understanding the implicit meaning of his work, then I find I must object to the alarmists. 

Mature readers have learned that the act of reading is often unpleasant. In fact, much worthy, classic literature is characterized by unfamiliar syntax and sentence patterning, dry expositions, lengthy character development, labyrinthine plots, and circuitous asides. Wise readers endure these minor impediments and archaisms in the interest of hearing the author out, discovering his arguments, perceiving his larger vision, and taking the measure of his artistic contribution. They have learned to overlook the idiosyncrasies and foibles of an age or a man in order to benefit from what seventeenth century poet John Milton calls the distillation of a mind: “For books are not absolutely 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 and extraction of that living intellect that bred them…a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life” (Areopagitica).  Should readers then, in the presence of such venerable persons, look merely to be entertained? Should they consume a book in a gulp, then toss it aside and pursue the next without pausing to reflect, to understand, or to consider the mind of the man they have met within its pages? In fact, conscientious parents would rebuke their children should they treat present speakers in such a way. It demonstrates fundamentally bad manners and wastes a valuable opportunity to secure wisdom. If Milton is right, then parents owe it to their children to teach them the polite art of mature reading. 

If, by “reading,” we mean that act of listening to understand, then reading not only requires analysis, it assumes it. Mature reading is an art and a science. While elementary reading primes the heart for the journey, maps and guides insure a lifetime of good trips. By learning the lay of the land, so to speak, of a genre or work, readers perceive artistic direction and subtleties and avoid getting lost in the verbal bushes. By discussing their trip with more experienced travelers, they notice what they otherwise might not, and consequently, better appreciate their own experience. Similarly, left alone in a museum, a child might wander past a Da Vinci or a Michelangelo, but accompanied by a veteran art lover, they will hear stories of craftsmanship and context that animate the art. So too an elementary reader might peruse a classic (or more likely pass it by); however, with the help of a skillful discussion leader, they might be enjoined to stop and consider. Chance exists that they may come out of their discussion with a new, more mature appreciation, not only for the piece, but for art in general. And far from taking joy out of the experience, such understanding adds layer upon layer of delight, sparking the thinking mind and empathetic heart on to new and richer life. 

If, as detractors argue, analysis kills a story, then it kills only stories that lack substance under scrutiny. These are the books that go down like candy, but that lack any real sustenance for the mind and the spirit. They are artifice without foundation, beauty without bones, and when they are examined carefully, they inevitably suffer. This is, however, a failing on the part of the book, and not on the attention or method of the reader. Such books do not earn the respect good reading pays them. I would argue that not every book deserves deep contemplation, but author and reader C. S. Lewis reminds us that we cannot really know which books are deserving until we read them well. In fact, good reading is a kind of undeserved grace humble readers offer to every book.

Read. Read often. Read aloud. Lure children into the discipline of reading with every means possible, but do not, having succeeded in these attempts, abandon them to the vulgar disrespect of consumerism. Equip them to entertain the worthy authors the ages have recommended to them. Such hospitality will not go unrewarded.