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Thursday Reading FUNdamentals: The Search for Meaning

April 8, 2010

The inspiration for this week’s Reading FUNdamentals entry comes from the TV show “South Park” of all places.  Not long after JD Salinger’s death, the series aired an episode where the four boys are required to read “Catcher in the Rye” which they’re told is a really smutty book.  But they find that it’s pretty tame and set out to write their own smutty book, which is so vile it makes people throw up upon reading it.  But the book finds great success because despite the vulgarity, people find meaning in it.  The only thing is that different groups of people read different things into it, liberals and conservatives finding differing meanings in the same words.

The point then was that we often seek out meaning even when there isn’t any.  So this week I thought I’d tackle how books can mean something to us–or not.

I think for the most part when we find meaning in books it’s because it’s something that speaks to us in terms of our own experiences.  The reader is not passive in reading and thus often applies his or her own values into the written words.  As the “South Park” episode was saying, two people can come up with completely different meanings from the same words.  Don’t believe it?  Just look at reviews on Amazon.  You’ll see that some people give the book 1-star and say it’s incredibly boring while others will give it 5-stars and say it was incredibly exciting.  Yet it’s the same book, so it can’t be both, can it?

Of course it can.  Because a book can mean different things to different people.  An example of this is my own experience with “Catcher in the Rye.”  I read it for the first time just a couple of years ago when I was catching up on supposedly great books I hadn’t read yet.  I thought it was a good book and certainly not boring, but it didn’t rock my world the way it had for so many others.  The first reason why is that like the kids of “South Park” I read it in the 21st Century where what’s shocking or vulgar has changed remarkably.  I mean in 2007 or so the idea of a 15-year-old going out alone into New York and running into hookers and whatnot isn’t very shocking.  Heck, that’s just about the plot to “Adventures in Babysitting” from the ‘80s.

The more important factor though is I read the book too late in life for it to have any meaning.  I didn’t read it in my teens or early 20s like many people.  If I had, I might have identified with Holden’s loneliness and alienation and futile rebellion.  As it was, I read the book as an adult and so it just couldn’t have the same meaning to me because those days had already come and gone.  While I found Holden to be a remarkable character, I didn’t want to imitate him like so many young people when they read the book.

I had the same experience when I read “On the Road” not long after that.  Here’s what I said in my review:

The farther I got, the more obvious the conclusion that I read this too late in life. Had I read this as a teenager or in college I could have romanticized it like so many other people have. The dream of flight, of fleeing the perceived dreariness of one’s life, is foremost the dream of the young who want to escape their parents in order to avoid becoming them. Unfortunately I’m at the phase where I and the people around me are becoming our parents–settling down, buying houses, getting married, having kids–which gives me a different perspective than if I’d read it ten or fifteen years earlier.

[And later…]

Like a couple of overgrown frat boys on spring break they do drink a lot of booze, smoke a lot of “tea,” and couple (to use PG language) with a lot of women. At least they had some fun, but couldn’t I just stay home and pop in a “Girls Gone Wild” DVD?

The point is that when reading books about adolescent rebellion it really helps if you’re an adolescent wanting to rebel.  Or perhaps if you’re just trying to relive old memories.  Or if you’re the parent of adolescent rebelling.  None of those apply to me so I can never enjoy them as passionately as I do other books.

On the other hand, a book I read at the right time was Dave Eggers’ autobiographical work, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  Here’s what I said:

What I think really resonates at this point is the experience of not just growing up, but your family growing up and growing apart. As a kid, most of us don’t put too much thought into our parents always being there, but as we get older we realize our parents are all too human and prone to the same weaknesses as anyone else. At the same time, the siblings you used to spend so much time with eventually move away and develop lives of their own that you no longer are much of a part of and in time can become almost like strangers.

It was 18 months later that my father passed away, in which case this book probably would have resonated even more with me.  But because I read it at the point in my life I did, I was still able to get more out of it than if I’d read it in my teens or early 20s when I was still at home and the family was pretty much intact.  The difference is that later in life, my view of the world was different based on my experiences and thus my interpretation of the novel and subsequent reaction to it was different than it would have been.

The way this ties into the “South Park” episode is that our reaction to certain books depends more on who we are than what the author is saying.  If you’re a writer, not even a famous one like JD Salinger, then you’ve probably had someone hate something you’ve written for reasons that were unintentional.  I still remember a case more than 10 years ago when I wrote a sci-fi story called “First Contact” and the first officer of the spaceship is a woman who leaves her family behind to go on the dangerous mission.  I had a couple people who absolutely hated this character with a passion.  How dare she leave behind her husband and kids to go on this dangerous mission!  I never intended anyone to HATE her, especially not that vehemently.  Their interpretation was that she was abandoning her husband and children.  My interpretation was that she was someone who put her duty to her planet first and thus had to make a noble sacrifice.  I think the root for the conflict is that I’m not a parent or a spouse.  These people who hated the character were, so they read the situation differently than I intended.

Another literary example of this is that in The World According to Garp, Jenny Garp writes a memoir of her life as a nurse and mother.  The book becomes a bestseller as women embrace her as a champion of the feminist movement.  She didn’t set out to write a feminist book, just to write truthfully about her own life.  That she becomes a hero to women is then because of their interpretation of Jenny’s story, which differed wildly than her own.

It’s a good lesson then for writers everywhere that what we say can be interpreted far differently than we intend it.  And for readers it’s good to remember that what we read isn’t necessarily what the author intends so much as what we read between the lines.  That might make those book club meetings far less contentious.

On Sunday I’ll feature a Sunday Surprise topic–not even I know what it’ll be yet!


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One Comment
  1. neptune1021 permalink

    I haven’t had the experience that someone has hated something I’ve written — not that I know about anyway! But if they did it wouldn’t bother me, I think. It’s perfectly true that we all bring our different experiential frames of reference to the table when we read (or take in any sort of art). It’s this difference that makes for different reactions, as you so correctly point out. Art is purely subjective, beyond the “craft” part of it (is it grammatically correct, etc). There’s no accounting for tastes!

    I read CATCHER (and ON THE ROAD) late in life, as well; I was in my 40s. I liked it but as with you, it had lost its power to “speak” to me. Whereas CATCH-22, which I read in my 20s, knocked my socks off. I had no experience with war, but it’s a brilliant book. So go figure.

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