Chapter 16 – How to Read History (part 3 of 3)


We have said that our exposition of the art of analytical reading applies to everything you have to read, not just to books. Now we want to qualify that statement a little. Analytical reading is not always necessary. There are many things that we read that o not require the kind of effort and skill that is called for at this third level of reading ability. Nevertheless, although the rules of reading do not all always have to be applied the four questions must always be asked of anything you read. That means, of course, that they must be asked when you are faced with the kind of things to which most of us devote much of our reading time: newspapers, magazines, books about current events, and the like.

The problem comes down to knowing what is actually happening now. We have chosen the word “actually” in the last sentence intentionally. … How do we get the new, and how do we know what we get is true?

Thus the most important thing to know, when reading any report of current happenings, is who is writing the report. What is involved here is not so much an acquaintance with the reporter himself as with the kind of mind he has. The various sorts of filter-reporters fall into groups. To understand what kind of filter our reporter’s mind is, we must ask a series of questions about it. This amounts to asking a series of questions about any material dealing with current events. The questions are these:

  1. What does the author want to prove?
  2. Whom does he want to convince?
  3. What special knowledge does he assume?
  4. What special language does he use?
  5. Does he really know what he is talking about?

For the most part it is safe to assume that all current events books want to prove something. Often it is easy enough to discover what this is. The blurb often sates the main contention or thesis of such books. If it does not appear there, it may be stated by the author in a preface.

Having asked what the book is trying to prove, you should next ask whom the author is trying to convince. Is the book intended for those “in the know” – and are you in that category? Is it for that small group of persons who can do something, and quickly, about the situation the author describes? Or is it for everyone? If you do not belong to the audience for which the book is intended, you may not want to read it.

You must next discover what special knowledge the author assumes that you have. The word “knowledge” is intended here to cover a lot of ground. “Opinion” or “prejudice” might have been a better choice. Many authors write only for readers who agree with them. If you disagree sharply with a reporter’s assumptions, you may only be irritated if you try to read his book.

Next, you must ask if there is a special language that the author uses. This is particularly important in reading magazines and newspapers, but it also applies to all books about current history. Certain words provoke from other readers a century hence. An example of such a word is “Communism” or “Communist.” We should try to control these responses, or at least know when they occur.

Finally, you must consider the last of the five questions, which is probably the hardest to answer. Does the reporter whose work you are reading himself know the facts? Is he privy to the perhaps secret thoughts and decisions of the persons about whom he is writing? Does he know all that he should know in order to give a fair and balanced account of the situation?

With the best good will in the world, with every intention of providing us with the truth of the matter, a reporter may still be “uninformed” with regard to secret actions, treaties, ans so forth. He himself may be aware of this, or he may not. In the latter case, of course, the situation is especially perilous for his reader.

You will not that these five questions are really only variations on the questions we have said you must ask of any expository book. Knowing an author’s special language, for example, is nothing more than coming to terms with him. But because current books and other material about the contemporary world pose special problems for us as readers, we have stated the questions in a different way.

Perhaps it is most useful to sum up the difference in a warning rather than a set of rules for reading books of this kind. The warning is this: Caveat Lector – “Let the reader beware.” … The author of any contemporary book may have – though he does not necessarily have – an interest in your understanding it in a certain way. Or if he does not, the sources of his information may have such an interest. You should know that interest, and take it into account in whatever you read.

            A NOTE ON DIGESTS

There is another consequence of our basic distinction – the distinction between reading for information and reading for understanding – that underlies everything we have said about reading. And this is that sometimes we have to read for information about understanding – to find out how others have interpreted the facts. Let us try to explain what this means.

The news magazines, for instance, such as Time and Newsweek, perform an invaluable function for most of us by reading the news and reducing it to its essential elements of information. The men who write these magazines are primarily readers. They have developed the art of reading for information to a point far beyond the average reader’s competence.

The skill that produces Reader’s Digest and the scores of similar periodicals is, first of all, a skill in reading, and only then one of writing simply and clearly. It does for us what few of us have the technique – even if we had the time – to do for ourselves. It cuts the core of solid information out of pages and pages of less substantial stuff.

But, after all, we still have to read the periodicals that accomplish these digests of current news and information. If we wish to be informed, we cannot avoid the task of reading, no matter how good the digests are. And the task of reading them is, in the last analysis, the same task as that which is performed by the editors of these magazines on the original material that they make available in more compact form. They have saved us labor, so far as the extent of our reading is concerned, but they have not saved us and cannot entirely save us the trouble of reading. In a sense, the function they perform profits us only if we can read their digests of information as well as they have done the prior reading in order to give us the digests.

And that involves reading for understanding as well as information. … the question of what has been left out becomes critical. Hence the greater the condensation, the more important it is that we know something of the character of the condenser; the same caveat we mentioned before applies here with even greater force. Ultimately, perhaps, this comes down to reading between the lines of an expert condensation. You cannot refer to the original to found out what was left out; you must somehow infer this from the condensation itself. Reading digests, therefore, is sometimes the most demanding and difficult reading that you can do.

Chapter 16 – How to Read History (part 2 of 3)


Despite the fact that most histories are closer to fiction than to science, they can be read as expository works, and therefore they should be. Hence, we must ask the same questions of a historical book that we ask of any expository book. Because of the special nature of history, we must ask those questions a little differently and must expect to receive slightly different kinds of answers.

As far as the first question is concerned, every history has a particular and limited subject. … A history of the Civil War is not a history of the world in the nineteenth century. … Hence, if we are to read a history well, it is necessary to know precisely what it is about and what it is not about. Certainly, if we are to criticize it, we must know the latter. An author cannot be blamed for not doing what he did not try to do.

With regard to the second question, the historian tells a story, and that story, of course, occurred in time. Its general outlines are thus determined, and we do not have to search for them. But there is more than one way to tell a story, and we must know how the historian has chosen to tell his. Does he divide his work into chapters that correspond to years or decades or generations? … Does he discuss, in one chapter, the economic history of his period, and cover its wars and religious movements and literary productions in others? Which of these is most important to him? If we discover that, if we can say which aspect of the story he is telling seems to him most fundamental, we can understand him better.

Criticism of history takes two forms. We can judge – but only, as always, after we understand what is being said – that a historian’s work lacks verisimilitude. People just do not act that way, we may feel. … On the other hand, we may think, especially if we have some special knowledge of the subject, that the historian has misused his sources. … In that case, he cannot have written a good history of it. We expect a historian to be informed.

The first criticism is, however, more important. A good historian must combine the talents of the storyteller and the scientist. He must know what is likely to have happened as well as what some witnesses or writers said actually did happen.

With regard to the last question, What of it?, it is possible that no kind of literature has a greater effect on the actions of men than history. … History suggests the possible, for it describes things that have already been done. If they have been done, perhaps they can be done again – or perhaps they can be avoided.

The main answer to the question, What of it? Therefore, lies in the direction of practical, political action. For this reason it is of great importance that history be read well. Unfortunately, leaders have often acted with some knowledge of history but not enough. With the world as small and dangerous as it has become, it would be a good idea for all of us to start reading history better.


A biography is a narrative account of the life, the history, of a man or woman or of a group of people; thus, a biography poses many of the same problems as a history. The reader must ask the same sort of questions – what is the author’s purpose? What are his criteria of truth? – as well, of course, as asking the questions we must ask of any book.

There are several kinds of biographies. The definitive biography is intended to be the final, exhaustive, scholarly work on the life of someone important enough to deserve a definitive biography. Definitive biographies cannot be written about living persons. They are seldom written until several non-definitive biographies have first appeared, all of them often somewhat inadequate. All sources are gone through, all letters read, and a great deal of contemporary history examined by the author.

A definitive biography is a slice of history – the history of a man and of his times, as seen through his eyes. It should be read as history. An authorized biography is not the same thing at all. Such works are usually commissioned by the heirs or friends of some important person, and they are carefully written so that the errors the person made and the triumphs he achieved are seen in the best light possible. … Instead of reading it simply as history, the reader should understand that it may be biased – that this is the way the reader is expected to think of the book’s subject; this is the way his friends and associates want him to be known to the world.

There remain those biographies that are neither definitive nor authorized. Perhaps we may all them ordinary biographies. In such works, we expect the author to be accurate, to know his facts. We want above all to be given the feeling that we are viewing the life of a real person in another time and place. Human beings are curious, and especially curious about other human beings.

Autobiographies present some different and interesting problems. First of all, it is questionable whether anyone has ever written a true autobiography. If it is difficult to know the life of anyone else, it is even more difficult to know one’s own. And, of course, all autobiographies have to be written about lives that are not yet complete.

The temptation to tell either less or more than the truth (the latter may be more common), when there is no one to contradict you, is almost irresistible. Everybody has some secrets he cannot bear to divulge; everybody also has some illusions about himself, which it is almost impossible for him to regard as illusions.

Are there any additional hints for reading biographies and autobiographies? … Despite the fact that such books, and especially the autobiographies, reveal much about their authors, we should not spend so much time trying to discover a writer’s secrets that we do not find out what his says plainly. … You should remember, of course, that if you wish to know the truth about a person’s life, you should read as many biographies of him as you can find. Including his own account of his life, if he wrote one. Read biography as history and as the cause of history; take all autobiographies with a grain of salt; and never forget that you must not argue with a book until you fully understand what it is saying. As to the question, What of it?, we would only say this: biography, like history, can be a cause of practical, moral action. A biography can be inspiring.


Chapter 16 – How to Read History (part 1 of 3)


“History,” like “poetry,” is a word of many meanings. In order for this chapter to be useful to you, we must come to terms with you about the word – that is, explain how we will be using it.

First of all, there is the difference between history as fact and history as a written record of the facts. We are obviously, here, employing the term in the latter sense. … The word could be applied, and indeed has been applied, to almost every kind of writing that originated in a time period, or in the context of an event, in which the reader was interested.

The sense in which we use the word “history” in what follows is both narrower and broader than any of those. It is narrower because we want to restrict ourselves to essentially narrative accounts, presented in a more or less formal manner, of a period or event or series of events in the past.

But our meaning is also broader than many of the definitions of the term that are current today. We think … that the essence of history is narration, that the last five letters of the word – “story” – help us to understand the basic meaning. Even a collection of documents, as a collection, tells a story. That story may not be explicit – … but it is implicit in them, whether they are ordered or not. Otherwise, we think, the collection would not be called a history of its time.


A historian is concerned with events that occurred, most of them, a long time ago. All the witnesses to the events are usually dead. What evidence they give is not given in a courtroom – that is, it is not governed by stringent and careful rules. … They are not cross-examined. And there is no guarantee whatever that they know what they are talking about.

If, then, it is difficult to be sure that one knows about the truth of a relatively simple matter, such as is decided by a jury in a court of law, now much more difficult it is to know what really happened in history. A historical fact, though we may have a feeling of trust and solidity about the word, is one of the most elusive things in the world.

Of course, about some kinds of historical fact we can be pretty certain. America was involved in a Civil War that began with the firing on Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, and ended with the surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, on April 9, 1865. Everyone agrees about those dates.

But how much have we learned if we know exactly when the Civil War start and when it ended? Indeed, those dates have been disputed – not on grounds that the calendars were wrong, but that the war really started with the election of Lincoln in the fall of 1860 and ended with his assassination five days after Lee’s surrender. Others have claimed that the war started even earlier – as much as five or ten or twenty years before 1861 – and we know that it was still actually being fought in the outlying parts of the United States, to which word had not yet come of the Northern triumph, as late as May, June and July, 1865.

At least we do know, one might say, that whether or not the firing on Fort Sumter started the Civil War, it did occur on April 12, 1861. … But why was Sumter fired on? That is an obvious next question. … If we did not care – and we do not care about many attacks on forts that have doubtless occurred, but about which we know nothing whatever – would the firing on Sumter still be a significant historical fact?


We class history, the story of the past, more often under fiction than under science – if it must be affiliated with one or the other. … This does not mean that a historian makes up his facts, like a poet or a story teller.

A good historian does not, of course, make up the past. He considers himself responsibly bound by some concept or criterion of accuracy or facts. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the historian must always make up something. He must either find a general pattern in, or impose one on, events; or he must suppose that he knows why the persons in this story did the things they did. … It is essential to recognize which way the historian you are reading is operating.

Because theories in history differ, and because a historian’s theory affects his accounts of events, it is necessary to read more than one account of the history of an event or period if we want to understand it. Indeed, this is the first rule of reading history. … every narrative history has to be written from some point of view. But to get at the truth, we ought to look at it from more than one viewpoint.


We are not always able to read more than one history of an event. When we are not, we must admit that we do not have much chance of learning the truth of the matter in question – of learning what really happened. However, that is not the only reason to read history. It might be claimed that only the professional historian, the man who is writing a history himself, is required to cross-examine his sources by exhaustively checking one against the other. … We, as lay readers of history, stand somewhere between the professional historian, on the one hand, and the irresponsible amateur, on the other hand, who reads history only for amusement.

Let us take the example of Thucydides. You may be aware that he wrote the only major contemporary history of the Peloponnesian War at the end of the fifth century B.C. In a sense, there is nothing to check his work against. What, then, can we expect to learn from it? … The victories are now meaningless, and the defeats without pain. … Indeed, if we stop to think of it, almost all that remains of the Peloponnesian War is Thucydides’ account of it.

Yet that account is still important. For Thucydides’ story – we might as well use that word – has had an influence on the subsequent history of man. Leaders in later eras read Thucydides. … The result was that by ever so little, perhaps, but perceptibly, the history of the world was changed by the view held of a small portion of it by Thucydides in the fifth century B.C. Thus we read Thucydides not because he described perfectly what happened before he wrote his book, but because he to a certain extent determined what happened after. And we read him, strange as it may seem, to know what is happening now.

If your view of history is limited, if you go to it to discover only what really happened, you will not learn the main thing that Thucydides, or indeed any good historian, has to teach.

History is the story of what led up to now. It is the present that interests us – that and the future. The future will be partly determined by the present. Thus, you can learn something about the future, too, from a historian, even from one who like Thucydides lived more than two thousand years ago.

Let us sum up these two suggestions for reading history. The first is: if you can, read more than one history of an event or period that interests you. The second is: read a history not only to learn what really happened at a particular time and place in the past, but also to learn the way men act at all times and places, especially now.


Chapter 15 – Suggestions for Reading Stories, Plays, and Poems (part 3 of 3)


The simplest definition of poetry (in the somewhat limited sense implied by the title of this section) is that it is what poets write. That seems obvious enough, and yet there are those who would dispute the definition. Poetry, they hold, is a kind of spontaneous overflowing of the personality, which may be expressed in written words but may also take the form of physical action, or more or less musical sound, or even just feeling. … But although we admit that there is a kernel of truth in this definition, the meaning of the term that we will be employing in what follows is much narrower. Whatever may be the origin of the poetic impulse, poetry, for us, consists of words, and what is more, of words that are arranged in a more or less orderly and disciplined way.

Other definitions of the term … are too narrow, just as the definition discussed in the last paragraph was too broad (for us). … Between such very broad and such very narrow definitions lies a central core that most people, if they were feeling reasonable about the matter, would admit was poetry.

Many people believe that they cannot read lyric poetry – especially modern poetry. … We would say two things. First, lyric poetry, even modern poetry, does not always demand as much work as you may think if you go about reading it in the right way. Second, it is often worth whatever effort you are willing to spend.

The first rule to follow in reading a lyric is to read it through without stopping, whether you think you understand it or not. This is the same rule that we have suggested for many different kinds of books, but it is more important for a poem than it is for a philosophical or scientific treatise, and even for a novel or play.

In fact, the trouble so many people seem to have in reading poems, especially the difficult modern ones, stems from their unawareness of this first rule of reading them. When faced by a poem of T. S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas or some other “obscure” modern, they plunge in with a will, but are brought up short by the first line or stanza. They do not understand it immediately and in its entirety, and they think they should. They puzzle over the words, try to unwind the complicated skein of the syntax, and soon give up, concluding that, as they suspected, modern poetry is just too difficult for them.

But any good lyric poem has a unity. Unless we read all of it, and all at once, we cannot comprehend its unity. We cannot discover, except possibly by accident, the basic feeling or experience that underlies it. In particular, the essence of a poem is almost never to be found in its first line, or even in its first stanza. It is to be found only in the whole, and not conclusively in any part.

The second rule for reading lyrics is this: Read the poem through again – but read it out loud. We have suggested this before, in the case of poetic dramas like Shakespeare’s. There it was helpful; here it is essential. You will find, as you read the poem out loud, that the very act of speaking the words forces you to understand them better. You cannot glide over a misunderstood phrase or line quite so easily if you are speaking it. Your ear is offended by a misplaced emphasis that your eyes might miss. And the rhythm of the poem, and its rhymes, if it has them, will help you to understand by making you place the emphasis where it belongs. Finally, you will be able to open yourself to the poem, and let it work on you, as it should.

In the reading of lyrics, these first two suggestions are more important than anything else. We think that if readers who believe they cannot read poems would obey these rules first, they would have little difficulty afterwards. For once you have apprehended a poem in its unity, even if this apprehension is vague, you can begin to ask it questions. And as with expository works, that is the secret of understanding.

The questions you ask of an expository work are grammatical and logical. The questions you ask of a lyric are usually rhetorical, though they may also be syntactical. You do not come to terms with a poem; but you must discover the key words. You discover them not primarily by an act of grammatical discernment, however, but by an act of rhetorical discernment. Why do certain words pop out of the poem and stare you in the face? Is it because the rhythm marks them? Or the rhyme? Or are the words repeated? Do several stanzas seem to be about the same ideas; if so, do these ideas from any kind of sequence? Anything of this sort that you can discover will help your understanding.

One final piece of advice about reading lyric poems. In general, readers of such words feel that they must know more about the authors and their times than they really have to. We put much faith in commentaries, criticism, biographies – but this may by only because we doubt our own ability to read. Almost everyone can read any poem, if he will go to work on it.

Chapter 15 – Suggestions for Reading Stories, Plays, and Poems (part 2 of 3)


A play is fiction, a story, and insofar as that is true, it should be read like a story. Perhaps the reader has to be more active in creating the background, the world in which the characters live and move, for there is no description in plays such as abounds in novels. But the problems are essentially similar.

However, there is one important difference. When you read a play, you are not reading a complete work. The complete play (the work that the author intended you to apprehend) is only apprehended when it is acted on a stage. Kike music, which must be heard, a play lacks a physical dimension when we read it in a book. The reader must supply the dimension.

The only way to do that is to make a pretense of seeing it acted. Therefore, once you have discovered what the play is about, as a whole and in detail, and once you have answered the other questions you must ask about any story, then try directing the play. Imagine that you have half a dozen good actors before you, awaiting your commands. Tell them how to say this line, how to play that scene. Explain the importance of these few words, and how that action is the climax of the work. You will have a lot of fun, and you will learn a lot about the play.

One other bit of advice may be helpful, particularly in reading Shakespeare. We have already suggested the importance of reading the plays through, as nearly as possible at one sitting, in order to get a feel for the whole. But, since the plays are mostly in verse, and since the verse is more or less opaque in places because of changes in the language that have occurred since 1600, it is often desirable to read a puzzling passage out loud. Read slowly, as if an audience were listening, and with “expression” – that is, try to make the words meaningful to you as you read them. This simple device will clear up many difficulties. Only after it has failed should you turn to the glossary or notes.


Most plays are not worth reading. This, we think, is because they are incomplete. They were not meant to be read – they were meant to be acted. … However, those few – the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes, the plays of Shakespeare, Moliere’s comedies, the works of a very few moderns – are very great indeed, for they contain within them some of the deepest and richest insights men have ever expressed in words.

Among these, Greek tragedy is probably the toughest nut to crack for beginning readers. … Nevertheless, the plays are so powerful that they triumph over even these obstacles, as well as others. It is important to read them well, for they not only can tell us much about life as we still live it, but they also form a kind of literary framework for many other plays written much later. … We have two bits of advice that may help.

The first is to remember that the essence of tragedy is time, or rather the lack of it. There is no problem in any Greek tragedy that could not have been solved if there had been enough time, but there is never enough. Decisions, choices have to be made in a moment, there is no time to think and weigh the consequences; and, since even tragic heroes are fallible – especially fallible, perhaps – the decisions are wrong. It is easy for us to see what should have been done, but would we have been able to see in time? That is the question that you should always ask in reading any Greek tragedy.

The second bit of advice is this. One thing we do know about the staging of Greek plays is that the tragic actors wore buskins on their feet that elevated them several inches above the ground. (They also wore masks.) But the members of the chorus did not wear buskins, though they sometimes wore masks. The caparison between the size of the tragic protagonists, on the one hand, and the members of the chorus, on the other hand, was thus highly significant. Therefore you should always imagine, when you read the words of the chorus, that the words are spoken by persons of your own stature; while the words spoken by the protagonists proceed from the mouths of giants, from personages who did not only seem, but actually were, larger than life.

Chapter 15 – Suggestions for Reading Stories, Plays, and Poems (part 1 of 3)


The parallel rules for reading imaginative literature that were discussed in the last chapter were general ones, applying across the board to all kinds of imaginative literature. … These rules, being general, must be adapted somewhat when they are applied to the different kinds of imaginative literature. In this chapter we want to suggest the adaptations that are required.

Before proceeding to those matters, however, it is desirable to make some remarks about the last of the four questions that the active and demanding reader must ask of any book, when that question is asked of a work of imaginative literature.

You will recall that the first three questions are: first, What is the book about as a whole?; second, What is being said in detail, and how?; and third, Is the book true, in whole or part? The application of these three questions to imaginative literature was covered in the last chapter. The first question is answered when you are able to describe the unity of the plot of a story, play, or poem. … The second question is answered when you are able to discern the role that the various characters play, and recount, in your own words, the key incidents and events in which they are involved. And the third question is answered when you are able to give a reasoned judgement about the poetical truth of the work. Is it a likely story? Does the work satisfy your heart and your mind? Do you appreciate the beauty of the work? In each case, can you say why?

The fourth question is, What of it? In the case of expository books, an answer to this question implies some kind of action on your part. … Now it is important to recognize that, in the case of a work of imaginative literature, this fourth and final question must be interpreted quite differently. … Strictly speaking, no action whatever is called for on your part when you have read a novel, play or poem well – that is, analytically. You have discharged all of your responsibilities as a reader when you have applied the parallel rules of analytical reading to such works, and answered the first three questions.

We say “strictly speaking,” because it is obvious that imaginative works have often led readers to act in various ways. Sometimes a story is a better way of getting a point across – be it political, economic, or moral point – than an expository work making the same point.

Nevertheless, such practical consequences of the reading of stories and poems are not of the essence of the matter. Imaginative writings can lead to action, but they do not have to. They belong in the realm of fine art.

Therefore, when it comes to applying this last question to works of imaginative literature, you should do so with caution. … You should remember that you are then taking heed of and reacting to something other than the story or poem itself. That subsists in its own right. To read it well, all you have to do is experience it.


The first piece of advice we would like to give you for reading a story is this: Read it quickly and with total immersion. Ideally, a story should be read at one sitting, although this is rarely possible for busy people with long novels. Nevertheless, the ideal should be approximated by compressing the reading of a good story into as short a time as feasible. Otherwise you will forget what happened, the unity of the plot will escape you, and you will be lost.

Some readers, when they really like a novel, want to savor it, to pause over it, to draw out the reading of it for as long as they can. But in this case they are probably not so much reading the book as satisfying their more or less unconscious feelings about the events and the characters. We will return to that in a moment.

Following this rule will allow you to answer the first question you should ask about any book – What is it about, as a whole? Unless you read it quickly you will fail to see the unity of the story. Unless you read intensely you will fail to see the details.

The terms of a story, as we have observed, are its characters and incidents. You must become acquainted with them, and be able to sort them out. But here a word of warning. To take War and Peace as an example, many readers start this great novel and are overwhelmed by the vast number of characters to whom they are introduced, especially since they all have strange-sounding names.

We should not expect to remember every character; many of them are merely background persons, who are there only to set off the actions of the main characters. However, by the time we have finished War and Peace or any big novel, we know who is important, and we do not forget. Pierre, Andrew, Natasha, Princess Mary, Nicholas – the names are likely to come immediately to memory, although it may have been years since we read Tolstoy’s book.

We also, despite the plethora of incidents, soon learn what is important. … You should not be anxious if all is not clear from the beginning. Actually, it should not be clear then. … The reader of a story, looking back on it after he has finished it, understands the relation of events and the order of actions.

All of this comes down to the same point: you must finish a story in order to be able to say that you have read it well. Paradoxically, however, a story ceases to be like life on its last page. Life goes on, but the story does not. Its characters have no vitality outside the book. … we are satisfied with Shakespeare’s and Tolstoy’s creations partly because they are limited in time. We need no more.

Fiction seems to be a necessity for human beings. Why is this? … One reason why fiction is a human necessity is that it satisfies many unconscious as well as conscious needs. It would be important if it only touched the conscious mind, as expository writing does. But fiction is important, too, because it also touches the unconscious.

Thus, in criticizing fiction we must be careful to distinguish those books that satisfy our own particular unconscious needs – the ones that make us say, “I like this book, although I don’t really know why” – from those that satisfy the deep unconscious needs of almost everybody. The latter are undoubtedly the great stories, the ones that live on and on for generations and centuries. … We do not know, we cannot be sure, that the real world is good. But the world of a great story is somehow good. We want to live there as often and as long as we can.

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


To make the “don’ts” discussed in the last section more helpful, they must be supplemented by constructive suggestions. These suggestions can be developed by analogy from the rules of reading expository works.

There are, as we have seen, three groups of such rules. The first group consists of rules for discovering the unity and part-whole structure; the second consists of rules for identifying and interpreting the book’s component terms, propositions, and arguments; the third consists of rules for criticizing the author’s doctrine so that we can reach intelligent agreement or disagreement with him. We called these three groups of rules structural, interpretive, and critical. By analogy, we can find similar sets of rules to guide us in the reading poems, novels and plays.

First, we can translate the structural rules – the rules of outlining – into their fictional analogies as follows.

  1. You must classify a work of imaginative literature according to its kind. A lyric tells its story primarily in terms of a single emotional experience, whereas novels and plays have much more complicated plots, involving many characters, their actions and their reactions upon one another, as well as the emotions they suffer in the process. Everyone knows, furthermore, that a play differs from a novel by reason of the fact that it narrates entirely by means of actions and speeches.
  2. You must grasp the unity of the whole work. Whether you have done this or not can be tested by whether you are able to express that unity in a sentence or two. … the unity of a story is always in its plot. You have not grasped the whole story until you can summarize its plot in a brief narration – not a proposition or an argument. Therein lies its unity.
  3. You must not only reduce the whole to its simplest unity, but you must also discover how that whole is constructed out of all its parts. … The parts of fiction are the various steps that the author takes to develop his plot – the details of characterization and incident. … In a story, the parts must somehow fit into a temporal scheme, a progress from a beginning through the middle to its end. To know the structure of a narrative, you must know where it begins – which is not necessarily on the first page, of course – what it goes through, and where it comes out at. You must know the various crises that lead up to the climax, were and how the climax occurs, and what happens in the aftermath. (By “aftermath” we do not mean what happens after the story is over. Nobody can know that. We mean only what happens, within the narrative, after the climax has occurred)

Second, what are the interpretive rules for reading fiction?

  1. The elements of fiction are it episodes and incidents, its characters, and their thoughts, speeches, feelings, and actions. … Just as you must come to terms with an expository writer, so here you must become acquainted with the details of incident and characterizations. You have not grasped a story until you are familiar with its characters, until you have lived through its events.
  2. Terms are connected in propositions. The elements of fiction are connected by the total scene or background against which they stand out in relief. The imaginative writer, we have seen, creates a world in which his characters “live, move and have their being.” The fictional analogue of the rule that directs you to find the author’s propositions can, therefore, be stated as follows: become at home in this imaginary world; know it as if you were an observer on the scene; become a member of its population, willing to befriend its characters, and able to participate in its happening by sympathetic insight, as you would do in the actions and sufferings of a friend. If you can do this, the elements of fictions will cease to be so many isolated pawns moved about mechanically on a chessboard. You will have found the connections that vitalize them into members of a living society
  3. In the reading of [expository] books, it is necessary to follow the argument. Hence, after you have discovered its terms and propositions, you are called upon to analyze its reasoning. There is an analogous last step in the interpretive reading of fiction. You have become acquainted with the characters … Now you must follow them through their adventures. The scene or background, the social setting is (like the proposition) a kind of static connection of the elements of fictions. The unraveling of the plot (like the arguments or reasoning) is the dynamic connection. To read a story well you must have your finger on the pulse of the narrative, be sensitive to its very beat.

The three steps we have suggested outline the way in which one becomes progressively aware of the artistic achievement of an imaginative writer. … You will not only know what you like but also why you like it.

Third, and last, what are the critical rules for reading fiction? … Where, in the case of expository works, the advice was not to criticize a book – not to say you agree or disagree – until you can first say you understand, so here the maxim is: don’t criticize imaginative writing until you fully appreciate what the author has tried to make you experience.

There is an important corollary to this. The good reader of a story does not question the world that the author creates – the world that is re-created in himself. … That is, we must merely appreciate the fact that a writer sets his story in, say, Paris, and not object that it would have been better to set it in Minneapolis; but we have a right to criticize what he does with his Parisians and with the city itself.

In other words, we must remember the obvious fact that we do not agree or disagree with fiction. We either like it or we do not. Our critical judgement in the case of expository books concerns their truth, whereas in criticizing belles-lettres, as the word itself suggests, we consider chiefly their beauty. The beauty of any work of art is related to the pleasure it gives us when we know it well.

Let us restate the maxims, then, in the following manner. Before you express your likes and dislikes, you must first be sure that you have made an honest effort to appreciate the work. … To achieve appreciation, as to achieve understanding, you must read actively, and that means performing all the acts of analytical reading that we have briefly outlined.

After you have completed such a reading, you are competent to judge. Your first judgement will naturally be one of taste. You will say not only that you like or dislike the book, but also why. The reasons you give will, of course, have some critical relevance to the book itself, but in their first expression they are more likely to be about you – your preferences and prejudices – than about the book. Hence, to complete the task of criticism, you must objectify your reactions by pointing to those things in the book that caused them. You must pass from saying what you like or dislike and why, to saying what is good or bad about the book and why.

The better you can reflectively discern the causes of your pleasure in reading fiction or poetry, the nearer you will come to know the artistic virtues in the literary work itself. You will thus gradually develop a standard of criticism. And you will probably find a large company of men and women of similar taste to share your critical judgments. You may even discover, what we think is true, that good taste in literature is acquired by anyone who learns to read.