Chapter 14 – How to Read Imaginative Literature (part 1 of 2)


So far, this book has been concerned with only half the reading that most people do. Even that is too liberal an estimate. Probably the greater part of anybody’s reading time is spent on newspapers and magazines, and on things that have to be read in connection with one’s job. And so far as books are concerned, most of us read more fiction that nonfiction. Furthermore, of the nonfiction books, the most popular are those that, like newspapers and magazines, deal journalistically with matters of contemporary interest.

We have not deceived you about the rules set forth in the preceding chapters. Before undertaking to discuss them in detail, we explained that we would have to limit ourselves to the business of reading serious nonfiction books. To have expounded the rules for reading imaginative and expository literature at the same time would have been confusing. But now we cannot ignore the other types of reading any longer.

Before embarking on the task, we want to emphasize one rather strange paradox. The problem of knowing how to read imaginative literature is inherently much more difficult than the problem of knowing how to read expository books. Nevertheless, it seems to be a fact that such skill is more widely possessed than the art of reading science and philosophy, politics, economics, and history. How can this be true?

It may be, of course, that people deceive themselves about their ability to read novels intelligently. … Those who cannot say what they like about a novel probably have not read it below its most obvious surfaces. However, there is more to the paradox than that. Imaginative literature primarily pleases rather than teaches. It is much easier to be pleased than taught, but much harder to know why one is pleased. Beauty is harder to analyze than truth.


In order to proceed by the way of negation, it is first of all necessary to grasp the basic differences between expository and imaginative literature. These differences will explain why we cannot read a novel as if it were a philosophical argument, or a lyric as if it were a mathematical demonstration.

The most obvious difference, already mentioned, relates to the purposes of the two kinds of writing. Expository books try to convey knowledge – knowledge about experiences that the reader has had or could have. Imaginative ones try to communicate an experience itself – one that the reader can have or share only by reading – and if they succeed, they give the reader something to be enjoyed. Because of their diverse intentions, the two sorts of work appeal differently to the intellect and the imagination.

This does not mean that we can think without using our imagination, or that sense experience is ever wholly divorced from rational insight or reflection. The matter is only one of emphasis.

This fact about imaginative literature leads to what is probably the most important of the negative injunctions we want to suggest. Don’t try to resist the effect that a work of imaginative literature has on you.

We have discussed at length the importance of reading actively. This is true of all books, but it is true in quite different ways of expository works and of poetry. … We must act in such a way, when reading a story, that we let it act on us. We must allow it to move us, we must let it do whatever work it wants to do on us. We must somehow make ourselves open to it.

The basic difference between expository and imaginative literature leads to another difference. Because of their radically diverse aims, these two kinds of writing necessarily use language differently. The imaginative writer … uses metaphors as the units of his construction just as the logical writer uses words sharpened to a single meaning. … The multiplication of metaphors puts almost more content between the lines than in the words that compose them. The whole poem or story says something that none of its words say or can say.

From this fact we obtain another negative injunction. Don’t look for terms, propositions, and arguments in imaginative literature. Such things are logical, not poetic, devices.

Of course, we can learn from imaginative literature, … but not in the same way as we are taught by scientific and philosophical books. We learn from experience – the experience that we have in the course of our daily lives. So, too, we can learn from the vicarious, or artistically created, experiences that fiction produces in our imagination. … That is why it seems right to say that expository books teach primarily, while imaginative books teach only derivatively, by creating experiences from which we can learn.

Finally, one last negative rule. Don’t criticize fiction by the standards of truth and consistency that properly apply to communication of knowledge. The “truth” of a good story is its verisimilitude, its intrinsic probability or plausibility.

When we read history, we want the truth in some sense, and we have a right to complain if we do not get it. When we read a novel and want a story that must be true only in the sense that it could have happened in the world of characters and events that he novelist has created, and re-created in us.

What do we do with a philosophical book, once we have read it and understood it? We test it – against the commons experience that was its original inspiration, and that is its only excuse for being. … When we understand and do not disagree, we must say, “This is our common sense of the matter. We have tested your theory and found it correct.”

Not so with poetry. We cannot test Othello, say, against our own experience, unless we too are Moors and wedded to Venetian ladies whom we suspect of treachery. But even if this were so, Othello is not every Moor, and Desdemona is not every Venetian lady; and most such couples would have the good fortune not to know an Iago. In fact, all but one would be so fortunate; Othello, the character as well as the play, is unique.