A Note on Reading Literature (Dr. Timothy Miller)

On Reading Literature

The following is an analysis of the experience of reading literature--things learned and lived. It extends from the time my mother taught me to read to the present. Formally, it draws upon many individuals who have written on the subject of reading literature, as with C. S. Lewis, I. A. Richards, Helen Gardner, and Stanley Fish. Moreover, it draws upon authors whose work has shaped my life, from Homer to Milton, for example. Also, it draws upon the genre of science fiction, from authors too numerous to name. In sum, it derives from the reading, study, and writing of a lifetime. It is all a part of me now and I pass it on to you--things realized, remembered, always renewed. As a child, I learned that “Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them” and that “eyes do more than see.” I hope you learn that too! (As a side note, I want to add that before my mother taught me to read, she read aloud to me in such a way that I had the sense of actually seeing things happening as she read aloud. See “Word Pictures.”)

Your reading of literature depends upon your ability to make use of something more than mere mechanical recognition of words and sentences. Power in reading is a constant growth, a power to develop through your experience in literature and life. Literature--poetry, fiction, drama--draws upon your ability to make mental pictures, some requiring from you the most intense thought and concentration, and some adding to your stores of information. Memory and imagination enter into the reading process. Sound, picture, suggestion, the meanings of words--your past reading, life, and personality--these are some of the elements that enter into reading. Reading sparks curiosity about yourself, about physical nature and the cosmos, about human beings of your time and other times, about the ends or purpose of life, about fate and destiny. You project your mind into worlds of the present or into worlds of the past or future, into ever-receding horizons.

Reading literature is, then, not just a process of receiving information or a brief engagement with a book. Giving is essential to receiving. You give your past experience in reading and in life; you give your personality. This done, you receive meanings, messages, potentials that lie suggested or concealed within the literature. If you give nothing, you receive noting in return. These factors mean that reading is creative, active, not passive. The author sees a vision of life, and weaves that vision into words. Your task is to recreate that vision of life in your own mind, imagination, and heart--to see and endeavor to understand. The promise of the unknown and unexplored always awaits. You can, as John Milton author of Paradise Lost, said live “a life beyond life,” that is, live more than one life. The world of life and the world of literature parallel and interact and increase in meaning as we grow. They form a basis for all our studies.

In summary, the experiences of life enter into your personality, become part of you. Yet no matter how rich and varied that experience, a new world yet untravelled, unimagined always beckons you on. It is so with the form of living that we meet in literature. To the work of literature, we bring all that we have known and lived in the past. The richer this experience, the more wonderful that horizon of the untravelled, unimagined world that the work of literature embodies. We move to the far side of the beyond or beyond the beyond. Life and Literature are two forms of the same thing, opening out in all directions, perhaps even in directions not yet perceived of as directions.

Also, please note that if you are troubled by any part of the assigned literature, remember that literature is life lived. Literature describes human circumstance, what characters, as with actual people, have gone through or could go through. The conflicts, though beyond expression in their totality, are as real as words can make them. In part, the author assumes that you will think of those who went through the conflicts, actual or imaginary, and say to yourself, “I can learn from what the characters went through,” or ask yourself, “Could I do what the characters did?” Literature admits us to experiences other than our own. We see with other eyes, learn with other minds, or feel with other hearts. We come to know ourselves and the world around us better. However, as noted, the farther our knowledge ranges, the farther extends the realm of the unknown.

From ancient times, literature has, among other things, provided contact with and observation of facts and events of life. Though at a distance, we can prepare ourselves for and supplement experience to come. We can learn only in the expectation of life.                                                              

Word Pictures

Before my mother taught me to read, she read aloud to me in such a way that I had the sense of actually seeing things happening as she read. She told me to “close your eyes and picture this...” I tried to imagine characters and sets of circumstances and then visualize what happened next and why. I was learning about the magic of “Once upon a time...,” the basis of storytelling, the acceptance of a premise, of “what would happen if...” situation. I saw and felt within me a creation and extension of imaginative space, of sentences made to carry one along in a pleasurable way, sparking curiosity and imparting the desire to learn more. I experienced story-telling continuity or sequence, the narrative pattern. It brought layered knowledge, the words having oral, visual, semantic, and emotional qualities. That knowledge, which I learned to keep in mind or memory, paved the way, at several levels, for what was to come or be gained by further listening or reading. I learned that one of the beauties of story-telling or literature is its capacity to join author and reader in active contemplation--in acts of imagination and interpretation. I had the sense that this movement was like a blossom ready to open, to bring into my life a fresh flowering. It did so and has ever since.