Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Reading Is Not As Easy As It Looks

Over Thanksgiving dinner I was talking with the son of a friend who is now working on his Master's or Doctorate in Literature. Our conversation meandered through miscellaneous topics as such laid back afternoons often go. At some point Dmitri got fired up about an essay pertaining to the topic of the moment: reading. He said he wanted to share with me an essay by Stephen Best and Sharon Markus on Surface Reading.

Over the weekend I read the essay and found it mentally stimulating. The premise is that styles of reading have changed. The following abstract encapsulates the theme.

In the text-based disciplines, psychoanalysis and Marxism have had a major influence on how we read, and this has been expressed most consistently in the practice of symptomatic reading, a mode of interpretation that assumes that a text's truest meaning lies in what it does not say, describes textual surfaces as superfluous, and seeks to unmask hidden meanings. For symptomatic readers, texts possess meanings that are veiled, latent, all but absent if it were not for their irrepressible and recurring symptoms. Noting the recent trend away from ideological demystification, this essay proposes various modes of "surface reading" that together strive to accurately depict the truth to which a text bears witness. Surface reading broadens the scope of critique to include the kinds of interpretive activity that seek to understand the complexity of literary surfaces---surfaces that have been rendered invisible by symptomatic reading.

For a long time I have suggested that we not take things at face value when reading the newspapers. Much that is written in a public space is designed to manipulate, not inform. Hence, to some extent it may be good to look beneath the surface. The problem comes when we never take anything at face value. On page 12 of the essay, for example, the authors cite Benjamin Kahan's argument that it is wrong to assume that when a person is celibate (eg. Nietzsche, Jesus) that he is a repressed homosexual.

The authors cite, among many other references, Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation" in which she argues that interpreters (critics, for example) do not unlock new meanings but instead alter them.

My next question is with regard to how this all relates to interpreting poetry, art or song lyrics. Love Me Do by the Beatles is pretty straightforward, but how does one unlock the ambiguous word chemistry in Dylan's Changing of the Guard? My guess is that songs like this become an individual experience and we only engage and interpret them for ourselves.

The essay makes for a good read, and may be helpful in explaining why communication today is not as easy as it looks.

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