Chapter 7 – X-Raying a Book (part 1 of 2)

  1. X-RAYING A BOOK

Recognition of the need to see the structure of a book leads to the discovery of the second and third rules for reading any book.

RULE 2. STATE THE UNITY OF THE WHOLE BOOK IN A SINGLE SENTENCE, OR AT MOST A FEW SENTENCES (A SHORT PARAGRAPH)

This means that you must say what the whole book is about as briefly as possible. To say what the whole book is about is not that same as saying what kind of book it is. (That was covered by RULE 1.) … To find out what a book is about in this sense is to discover its theme or main point.

But it is not enough to acknowledge this fact vaguely. You must apprehend the unity with definiteness. … Do not be satisfied with “feeling the unity” that you cannot express.

RULE 3. SET FORTH THE MAJOR PARTS OF THE BOOK, AND SHOW HOW THESE ARE ORGANIZED INTO A WHOLE, BY BEING ORDERED TO ONE ANOTHER AND TO THE UNITY OF THE WHOLE.

You have not grasped a complex unity if all you know about it is how it is one. You must also know how it is many, not a many the consists of a lot of separate things, but an organized many.

There is a difference between a heap of bricks and the single house they can constitute. … There is a difference between a single house and a collection of houses. A book is like a single house … having many rooms … of different sizes and shapes, … with different uses. The rooms are independent, in part. Each has its own structure and interior decoration. But they are not absolutely independent and separate. They are connected … by what architects call a “traffic pattern.” Because they are connected, the partial function that each performs contributes is share to the usefulness of the whole house.

A good book, like a good house, is an orderly arrangement of parts. Each major part has a certain amount of independence. … But it must also be connected with the other parts – for otherwise it would not contribute its share to the intelligibility of the whole.

As houses are more or less livable, so books are more or less readable. … That is one of the reasons why the best books are also the most readable.

OF PLOTS AND PLANS: STATING THE UNITY OF A BOOK

Let us return now to the second rule, which requires you to state the unity of the book.

Let us begin with a famous case. You probably read Homer’s Odyssey in school. The story of the man who took ten years to return from the siege of Troy only to find his faithful wife Penelope herself besieged by suitors. It is an elaborate story as Homer tells it, full of exciting adventures on land and sea, replete with episodes of all sorts and many complications of plot. But it also has a single unity of action, a main thread of plot that ties everything together.

Aristotle, in his Poetics, insists that this is the mark of every good story, novel, or play. To support his point, he shows how the unity of the Odyssey can be summarized in a few sentences.

A certain man is absent from home for many years; he is jealously watched by Poseidon, and left desolate. Meanwhile his home is in a wretched plight; suitors are wasting his substance and plotting against his son. At length, tempest-tossed, he himself arrives; he makes certain persons acquainted with him; he attacks the suitors with his own hand, and is himself preserved while he destroys them.

“This,” says Aristotle, “is the essence of the plot; the rest is episode.”

After you know the plot in this way, and through it the unity of the whole narrative, you can put the parts into their proper places. … The plot of Tom Jones, for instance, can be reduced to the familiar formula: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. … To recognize this is to learn what it means to say that there are only a small number of plots in the world. The difference between good and bad stories having the same essential plot lies in what the author does with it, how he dresses up the bare bones.

Be guided by the prospectus the author gives you, but always remember that the obligation of finding the unity belongs finally to the reader, as much as the obligation of having one belongs to the writer. You can discharge that obligation honestly only by reading the whole book.