How to talk about books

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A student came to me after class to ask about what is legitimate to discuss about the books we read. This is an important question, because it gets at one of the major difference between reading in literature (whether it’s fiction or nonfiction) versus reading in the sciences (life, physical or human) and even other humanities like history and philosophy. Basically, there is no single focus or “right” reading of the narratives we read. What I’m presenting is, of course, reflective of two things: 1. the focus of the course (i.e., I will talk mostly about aspects of the readings that reflect plot, temporal structure, narration, etc–in short, things related to narrative); and 2. my own interests and specialty.

In other words, you should feel encouraged to bring up your thoughts and interpretations even if they don’t exactly reflect my lecture. By focusing on, say, time in The Sense of an Ending, I am neglecting other important features, like the historical moment it describes (1960s London), the issue of class, its portrait of masculinity and its sexual politics, etc. If these or other aspects of the novel strike you as important or interesting, do raise them in class–or as comments on this blog.

This is not to say, of course, that anything goes (a common misinterpretation of how the study of literature works). It is arguable that Tony Webster is a misogynist pig, but it’s plain wrong to say he’s a psychopath, or a spy, or a Ferengi, an alter ego of Veronica or the spirit of Adrian Finn. As in the sciences, interpretations must be supported by evidence (usually in the text).

In any case, consider this an encouragement to bring up things about the readings that don’t necessarily or obviously relate to the topic of my lecture.

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