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.