‘And son, about that Shirley Jackson story.’
‘There’s nothing to get.’
‘No? That’s not what Mr Marchant says.’
‘With all due respect to Mr Marchant, you tell him that sometimes a cigar is just a smoke and a story’s just a story.’
Sometimes it just feels wrong. Instructing people – young and old – to read through a book with a fine-toothed comb, hunting for whatever interpretation seems to suit the latest fancy. We scavenge and ravage the words, shoe-horning characters and quotations to suit a purpose, retro-fitting an author’s story for our own devices.
Reading for meaning is all well and good, so long as the meaning comes from the reading.
Yesterday, a rather reactionary interpretation of The Hunger Games was published, presenting a reading of the story that seemed quite at odds with the general consensus about the text. Equal parts convenient controversy to time with the film adaptation’s release and blatant over-interpretation of incidental elements, what was actually presented was a clear example of modern readership: interpretation for the sake of interpretation, and ignorance of the book as a whole.
A book, according to modern readership, has become a Rorschach test. A blank canvas that over-interpreters imprint their own inherent bias and persuasion onto. Anything that doesn’t match is ignored, and anything trivial that does is overblown into a definitive account.
This is rubbish.
For a country that places pride in having a City of Literature and innumerable writer’s festivals and book festivals, and statistically high rates of adults who either write professionally or habitually, it is imperative that we don’t lose focus on reading.
The issues-first approach to reading books is clouding our ability to just read for the sake of it. Books are chosen to be taught to students in schools across Australia for their applicability to contemporary situations, issues and ideologies. No wonder reading is increasingly seen as an unenjoyable act for the young.
First and foremost: a book is a book is a book is a book.
The more we teach and promote and cultivate superimposed interpretations onto books, the more we diminish the act of reading.
The more we ask students ‘what does it mean?’ the more we lose sight of the enjoyment that comes from reading.
The act and art of reading is worthy of promotion. Re-establishing the value of the book and the author behind it is culturally unfashionable in a society that still heralds the death of the author as a worthy landmark. We have lost sight of what a book is. We have forgotten what a story is.
Reading should primarily be about the words on the page. If the relationship between the book and the reader is fostered, and allowed to grow organically, then the act of reading once again becomes important and valued. No longer will a student – or any person – have to scour through a book hoping to discover and unlock ‘the meaning’, lest they not make the grade. No more will we have right answers and wrong answers when it comes to how to read a book. And no more will there be interpretations of books that conveniently fit an ideology, disregarding all complexity, nuance and originality.
To read and over-interpret a book that way reimagines the writer as someone who camouflages a manifesto with the illusion of fiction. All authors are not allegorists, all stories are not subterfuge.
There is a tender and worthy relationship between an author and a reader, carried by the story between them. We should let that be whatever it wants to be, and not interfere.
A book is just a book.
A story is just a story.
Let’s remember that readers should just be readers, and not vessels for our own agendas.