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

HOW TO READ PLAYS

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.

A NOTE ABOUT TRAGEDY

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)

  1. SUGGESTIONS FOR READING STORIES, PLAYS, AND POEMS

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.

HOW TO READ STORIES

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)

GENERAL RULES FOR READING IMAGINATIVE LITERATURE

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.