Being wrong about books. How to interpret literature
Strong and weak misreadings
In this new section of the blog, you can find the book club schedule and the essays for paid subscribers. The next book club is J.S. Mill’s Autobiography on 22nd October, 19.00 UK time. It’s a great, short book that will shock you and make you think. One of the core texts of the nineteenth century. Do join us.
I am running the second ‘How to Read a Poem’ salon all about sonnets on 5th October.
Being wrong about books
Is it possible to be wrong about what a book means, or can we interpret them however we want, based on our own response? This question comes up in different forms in the book club, and Simon asked recently about “the game of making meaning” with literature. This game is everywhere. (The production of Pygmalion I reviewed last week hardly understood the play at all.) So today I am going to outline some principles of interpretation.
I believe strongly that it is possible to be quite wrong about what a book means, and that people often are. Think of Jane Austen, who is widely misunderstood as being about weddings and hem lines, about gentility and romance. In fact, cloase readings shows that Jane Austen hates you: she’s just subtle about it.
Of course a book means to you whatever it means to you. And one of the things that makes a book truly great is universality. It survives through time and place because it stays relevant to different people and circumstances. But that’s not the same as the idea that books can be critically interpreted however we like.
There are facts that we can know about a text. And in good criticism, knowledge comes before interpretation. As Susan Sontag said in Against Interpretation, “The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.” We don’t need to go quite that far, but we should know how it is what it is before we can understand what it means.
Strong and weak misreadings
There are different ways of misreading a text—strong and weak. Strong misreadings are a wholesale reimagining, a complete reinvention, such as the response of one great artist to another. Weak misreadings are mistakes, when we prioritise something we happen to already think over finding out what the words mean and would have meant in context. Many common readers who want to learn about literature are given weak misreadings under the guise of knowledge.
Take the example of The Death of Ivan Illyich by Tolstoy. You see a lot written about this book that isn’t wrong—focussing on human nature, how we respond to suffering, making the most of life—but which downplays (or ignores) Christianity. Ivan Illyich is an explicitly Christian book. That’s the whole point: it’s right there in the text. If we don’t account for that, we don’t understand what the words on the page actually mean. To put that in Sontag’s terms, what it means is then divorced from how it is what it is.
When we make such a misreading, we don’t learn from the book. And what is the point of reading a book if you are only going to find there what you already know? That’s the literary equivalent of going to a party and responding to everything you hear with, “Ah, that reminds me of something I said to my wife earlier today…”
The film Ikiru is a strong misreading of Tolstoy, utterly transforming and reimagining his story in a secular way. In contrast, finding modern notions of “making the most of your life” in Ivan Illyich is a weak misreading, much more to do with our own pre-existing ideas, than the book itself.
Weak misreadings are everywhere. How many people read Jane Eyre and think about its feminism without thinking about religion? Similarly, this essay is a good explanation of the way that thinking of Anna Karenina as a story about a romantic heroine is a mistake entirely at odds with the details of the book. Tolstoy isn’t some weepy romance writer: he’s judging you.
Another example. The Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken is often quoted as if it endorses the idea of taking the road less travelled. In fact, the wording makes clear that the very opposite is the moral of the poem. As Frost wrote:
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Both that morning equally lay. The paths are the same. There is no road less travelled. The whole thing is a joke about the lies we tell ourselves.
But few remember these lines, and this has been called the “most misread poem in America.” Whenever we quote this poem to mean “you should take the road less travelled” we are making a weak misreading, using it to echo something we already thought, not to understand the poem itself. We are finding the answer we already have and treating Frost like self-help or affirmation, not as art.
Again, that’s fine, just be clear with yourself whether that is what you want. If you want to learn from the poem, it doesn’t make much sense to read in way that ignores a significant part of it.
Until we have knowledge of a text, we cannot make strong readings, misreadings, or reinterpretations of it. What J.S. Mill said of history (in The Subjection of Women) is true of literature,
in history, as in travelling, men usually see only what they already had in their own minds; and few learn much from history, who do not bring much with them to its study.
You are not obliged to learn from, or even about, literature. But if you do want to learn, it is best to ground your interpretation in knowledge. Books are made of words that have real meanings. We can choose to learn from them or not, but we cannot deny the choosing.