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Rogue Mutt Classics: The Search for Meaning

July 27, 2011

I actually own the episode of “South Park” mentioned on here now.  I bought the 14th season on DVD mostly so I could finally watch episodes 200 & 201 that you can’t see anywhere else.  Anyway, that episode is one of the better ones from that season because it’s so true about how people read into books to find meanings that aren’t there.


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.


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  1. AWESOME post! I love this:

    “The point is that when reading books about adolescent rebellion it really helps if you’re an adolescent wanting to rebel.”

    It’s amazing how much empathy and deep understanding can come from experiencing similar things. I’ve been thinking along these lines and needed to read this today 😉


  2. Rubbish.

    • Which part?

      • You say people seek out meaning even when there isn’t any. You also say that people apply their own values to written words.

        French philosopher Jacques Derrida who invented the term deconstruction writes:

        “[w]riting thus enlarged and radicalized, no longer issues from a logos. Further, it inaugurates the destruction, not the demolition but the de-sedimentation, the de-construction, of all the significations that have their source in that of the logos.”

        In this quotation Derrida states that deconstruction is what happens to meaning when language is understood as writing. For Derrida, when language is understood as writing it is realised that meaning does not originate in the logos or thought of the language user. Instead individual language users are understood to be using an external system of signs, a system that exists separately to them because these signs are written down. The meaning of language does not originate in the thoughts of the individual language user because those thoughts are already taking place in a language that does not originate with them. Individual language users operate within a system of meaning that is given to them from outside. Meaning is therefore not fully under the control of the individual language user.

        The meaning of a text is not neatly determined by authorial intention and cannot be recreated without problem by a reader. Meaning necessarily involves some degree of interpretation, negotiation, or translation. This necessity for the active interpretation of meaning by readers when language is understood as writing is why deconstruction takes place.

        Writers know what they are putting down. All you are saying here is that people have their own opinions. Yes, opinions are like assholes and everybody has one. But to pull something completely unintentioned from a writer’s work? That sounds like bad writing to me. In other words, the author doesn’t have the skill to successfully convey his or her message and so it gets opened up to a variety of “oh I’m so surprised that you read THAT into my text. I had no idea that I had a secret agenda and if you are reading that into my work then I’m sorry but it just WASN’T supposed to be there.” I call bullshit. If you’re a writer and you claim that particular pile of crap as a defense then you aren’t standing up for your work OR you don’t want everyone to be onto your secret agenda.

      • I guess me and Trey Parker aren’t up on our French philosophy. A part of that “South Park” episode is that someone reads the book the boys wrote and thinks it’s a message to kill the Kardashians. There are always those people who will find “hidden” meanings, like those people who claim there are hidden satanic lyrics in Ozzy Osbourne songs or whatever. It’s like the guy in “A Beautiful Mind” imaging hidden codes in the newspapers and magazines. Most of us aren’t that disturbed, but we still see what we want to see. When you read “Ender’s Game” you thought Card was slamming gays. When I read it I didn’t think that at all. Even if Card didn’t, you could say he subconsciously meant to. Again it’s just a difference of our points of view. Perspective, like if you’re in space the Earth looks tiny but if you’re down here on the ground it seems enormous.

  3. Wow. I’m not sure why Mike is so vehement.

    I think high-falutin’ philosophers who use inscrutable language to obscure their meanings and avoid ever getting real jobs are rubbish, but that’s just me.

    I agree with you, Rogue: I’ve had thoughts like this too, and called it the “My Aunt’s Dog Theorem” and I’ve used it a lot:

    That’s the subjective nature of art: whatever an artist hopes to convey gets diluted in the medium he uses to convey it, and by the perspective of the person it is conveyed to. That’s not the fault of the artist; it’s the beauty of art. A story, poem, song, or sculpture that can convey not just what the artist thought, but can bring meaning through the differing perspectives of the viewer is the highest level of art; some things have only one meaning (if that), like “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga. Some things have numerous layers of meaning depending on when and how you experience them — like “Huckleberry Finn.”

    • Ha, you guys got two comments in while I was writing mine. If we all looked at things the same way we wouldn’t have all this political wrangling going on now.

  4. Because I believe that authors put intent into their writing. I mean you guys can sit there and say “Mike is reading too much into this particular book or Mike is getting this out of it and I don’t think the author intended that…” so my defense is that I do believe the author intended what I got out of a particular book. Believing in what Mutt is saying takes too many writers off the hook for some b.s. that I read into their writing. Authors KNOW WHAT THEY ARE WRITING.

    • I’m going to break out another example taken from an adult cartoon. On an episode of “American Dad” Stan becomes obsessed with the band My Morning Jacket to the point that lead singer Jim James becomes like a cult figure to him. When Stan finally gets to meet James, he gushes about how they’re soul mates and all that. James tells him, “Hey that’s great, but I didn’t write those songs for you. I don’t even know you.” That’s how it is with all art. We don’t KNOW who’s on the receiving end, not intimately. I know what I want you to take away from my stories, but if you take away something else from it–even something creepy or evil–there’s no way I can predict that because you’re a total stranger.

      Another example I should have worked in was “Don Quixote.” The modern interpretation, the one from “Man of La Mancha” and all that is Don Quixote is this wacky idealist, a beautiful dreamer. When I actually read the novel about 5 years ago I thought, WTF? There’s nothing like that in Cervantes’s text. The way Cervantes writes it, Don Quixote is this lunatic, a relic of a bygone era who endangers everyone he comes into contact with. If Cervantes heard how we think of his book now, he’d probably shake his head and say, “Where’d you get that from?” But then maybe I’m misinterpreting something, right?

  5. I knew this was going to boil down to Orson Scott Card. You should just write a story where you two get married and live happily ever after.

    As for Don Quixote, we shall never know because Cervantes is dead. Arguing that he wouldn’t agree with interpretations of his text is futile because there is no answer to that.

    Anyway…I’m going to agree to disagree with you and Pagel. Go on and believe that people like Michelle Bachman and Eric Cantor and John Boehner mean only what they say as specifically defined by their words. Go on and believe that the Constitution should not be interpreted but should only be read literally.

    I’m going to be the person looking for intent behind those words and not because I’m trying to match them to my own belief system…but because I think the author intended those meanings from the very beginning.

    • I only somewhat liked “Ender’s Game” and “Ender’s Shadow” and hated “Shadow of the Hegemon” and haven’t read any Card since then. He really pissed me off by saying in the afterword of Hegemon that we shouldn’t have attacked Afghanistan in 1998 with cruise missiles. (He actually did say that; not my interpretation.) Maybe that was before 9/11, which proved those cruise missiles probably should have been nuclear-tipped.

      I’m not saying you can’t interpret things; I’m saying you can’t hold me as the author responsible for your interpretations. If I went and blew up a bunch of churches because I said Harry Potter made me do it, you’d say I was nuts. Of course Rowling doesn’t want me to blow up churches! She can’t be responsible for what every whacko thinks, nor can I be held responsible for what everyone thinks of my book.

      • And I’m saying I can hold you accountable as an author. If an interpretation is vastly different from what the author intended then that means as a reader, YOU DIDN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU READ.

        That’s okay…there are a lot of people that don’t understand what they read. They think that they understand, and they may want to understand, but the point is that what the author was trying to convey bounced off of a reader’s skull.

        And yes…I really am saying that there are some people that read a book completely through and don’t understand. Maybe it has something to do with I.Q. I have no idea.

        There are two reasons why “understanding what you read” fails. I identify them as:

        1) The author is a bad writer. He fails to convey his message in appropriate terms that the reader can digest. Thus he opens himself up to a huge amount of misinterpretation. Again…bad writer.

        2) The reader doesn’t have the necessary education and experience to understand what the writer is trying to convey.

        In fact, it could be a combination of both of these things.

      • Who decides what’s vast and what isn’t?

  6. Mike, I think ultimately I gotta agree with the Mutt on this one. While the author’s intention matters to some degree, I think you’re misusing your Derrida.

    You wrote: “The meaning of a text is not neatly determined by authorial intention and cannot be recreated without problem by a reader. Meaning necessarily involves some degree of interpretation, negotiation, or translation. This necessity for the active interpretation of meaning by readers when language is understood as writing is why deconstruction takes place.”

    Derrida thought deconstruction was a necessity – it must happen because readers contribute their own set of experiences to a text. If I’ve read The Odyssey, then the Cohen brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou will have a totally different set of meanings for me than it will for someone who has never explored Greek literature.

    This is the same theme that Barthes used to formulate his theory of the relatively low impact of authorial intention in “The Death of the Author.”

    To claim, based on Derrida’s argument, that “authors know what they are putting down” and therefore have control over audience response – over all audience response – is to move in a direction that is opposite to Derrida’s position.

    There may be a limit on plausible interpretations of a text. Harry Potter = church bombings is a radical interpretation, to say the least.

    There’s nothing wrong, though, with the idea that a given text can have multiple interpretations that have little to do with what the author intended. When we write fiction, we engage in a complex set of symbols and metaphors that have tentacles reaching all over the place. We might not be conscious, as writers, of all of the different places those tentacles can reach. This is why you can read a book and take away a certain set of meanings from it, then read an interview by the author and be blown away by what she or he thinks the book is about. In my opinion, this propagation of multiple meanings can happen with crappy literature, but it isn’t a yardstick for determining whether a work is lousy or whether the author had poor control over what she or he was putting down. Rather, multiple interpretations are more likely to happen with great literature, like Shakespeare’s plays, or that book that the kids wrote in episodes 200 & 201 of South Park.

    • Here is my interpretation. Deriving meaning from the act of reading a text is always going to be a combination of both what the author intended and the outside influences that act upon a reader at the time of the reading. These outside influences may be education, life experience, or even someone in the room that tells him or her what to think. However, there will always be an author’s original intent present…period…without exception. If you are reading a text and completely dismiss what an author has meant then you fail to understand the words that are written on the page. That is all I’m saying. There is a difference between a failure to understand and just simply saying “oh well…I read Harry Potter and got church bombings from that.” Mutt might be tempted to approach the person that declared that and say, “how interesting…that is not what I got from it but to each his own I guess.” Whereas I would say, “How stupid. You totally misunderstood Harry Potter. Go and find something that you can understand because J.K. Rowling is obviously too far above your reading level.” Perhaps Dr. Seuss could suit you better.

      • Speaking of Dr. Seuss, you should read Pagel’s post on the Sneetches. The link is in his comment.

        If someone said they were going to bomb churches because of Harry Potter, I’d say, “You’re an idiot!” And JK Rowling would say, “WTF?” (Or the British equivalent, which is probably classier.)

        And speaking of Potter, as I’ve probably said before, when I read it it didn’t mean much to me. Did I not understand it–did I not GET it as someone so eloquently said once? No, I got it but I just didn’t care. It didn’t mean as much to me as say Star Wars did back in the day. Like with the books I referenced in the post, I read Potter at the wrong time in life. If I had read it when I was a kid or teen, I’d probably love it as much as everyone who stood in line for hours to watch the movie.

        So what I was trying to say is that who we are affects what we take from a book. If you’re a crazy loner, then maybe it does tell you to bomb churches. If you’re a 30-something fat bastard it might not mean anything at all. And if you’re a nerdy 14-year-old it might mean everything to you. It all depends on who you are.

  7. Just so you know, my reading of Orson Scott Card’s intent is not so “out there” as you claim it is:

    I submit the following evidence:

    In an article written for the Mormon Times, he voiced strong condemnation of any government that recognized gay marriage stating, “Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down…”

    In 2009, Card became a member of the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that seeks to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage.

    Card has called for laws against homosexual behaviour to “remain on the books”.

    In short, he is a known bigot. Geee I wonder how this relates to Ender’s Game. OMG…let’s put on our shocked face…is it possible that what Mike says is true? Is it possible that Card is a clever writer and carefully disguised his fight with the buggers (a slang term for homosexual) in hateful feelings he had toward gays?

    You would like it if I agreed with you and said, “Oh you’re absolutely right Mutt. I mean gee…these things I read into novels…there is NO WAY that they could have been there intentionally by the author. Golly gee… I guess ya know it’s just a cool space fight with kids playing games and stuff. Wow…awesome. Go Hugo Go Nebula Go Go.”

    • Did I say it was “out there”? I was just saying I didn’t get that when I read the book, but then I didn’t do any homework on Card before I read it either. I just took the book on its own. That’s how other factors besides the author’s text come into play to color our experience.

      • But admit that I have a valid point. That with the evidence I’ve presented that yes, Card may have intentionally written Ender’s Game as an allegory for his hateful feelings toward gay people.

      • It’s an entirely possible. He’s the only one who knows for sure–if he even knows.

  8. Well, dammit. I had something really to pithy to say here, but the comments got a little too heavy. I’ll save it for another day.

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