How to Read a Book

Although Ernest Hemingway’s brilliant 1927 story Hills like White Elephants is only three pages long, there are tens of thousands of pages of academic analysis telling us how to read it.

The story itself is little more than tense, disjointed exchange between a man and a woman at a railway station somewhere between Barcelona and Madrid. Instinctive, melodic, enigmatic, irrefutable—the dialog is all we have, and it’s all we need.

I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened. — Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway gives us the bare minimum so that we might subconsciously fill the gaps with the logic and imagery of our own existence; he surely didn’t intend that blustering pedagogues and glorified cheat sheets should do it for us. And yet, at every turn there is a professor, a critic, or a study guide dishing up symbolism: the woman sees white elephants in the hills because the child she’s carrying is “the elephant in the room”; the train tracks are green on one side, barren on the other, evoking the differing attitudes of the main protagonists towards the woman’s pregnancy; the woman “recalls psalm 21 as she lifts up her eyes to the hills for help”.

Far from clarifying the original work, such absurdist pseudo-science only serves to obfuscate. A well written work of fiction speaks to something much deeper and more visceral than impersonal theorizing ever could. As the author’s work is coated by layer upon layer of scholarly inference, so the beauty, lucidity and intimacy of the original is smothered in the cold, hard varnish of academia. No wonder so many of us leave high school with no interest in literature.

He knew everything about literature except how to enjoy it. — Joseph Heller

I don’t know when the quest for the message or the meaning of a work of fiction became a thing. It might have been around the time the definition of literature morphed from a canon of work into a discipline. The idea that you have to study for four years in order to appreciate Hemingway (or Woolf, or Tolstoy, or Wilde) is, to me, as bizarre as the (related) notion that the goal of reading a novel should be to dredge up some profound and indispensable truth which the author has cunningly hidden in the depths of the subtext. Our schools and colleges are awash with self-proclaimed arbiters of authorial intent who would have us approach fiction as though it were a science built on absolute truths. If you ever encounter a multiple choice literature test, burn it. Right or wrong is the product of an education system gone badly awry.

Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live. — Gustave Flaubert

There was an actual book called How to Read a Book published in the 1940s. It focused almost entirely on non-fiction and encouraged the reader to analyze everything ad nauseam. In case you hadn’t guessed, this essay is exclusively about fiction (never let mere accuracy get in the way of a good title) and advocates entirely the opposite approach.

Don’t subject the text to moralizing, rationalization or allegory. Don’t seek knowledge or erudition from fiction; in fact don’t ask anything of it. Keep your left brain in check, immerse yourself in the author’s world and in doing so gain new perspective on your own.

Read for pleasure. Don’t approach a novel as a necessary evil to be digested like broccoli or fish oil; it won’t make you smarter, a better conversationalist, get you that dream job or impress your friends. The joy of fiction is much bigger than that: the intimacy of the bond between reader and author, the recognition of self and others by way of the universal traits of the human condition, an encounter with genius on our own terms.

Skip the synopsis on the back cover, it’s just mediocre advertising copyright. Ignore the critics, the professors and the study guides. What a book means to them says nothing about your life, and what a book means to you is none of their business. Literary interpretation is phony; the only truth is the text, and your emotional reaction to it.

Revel in it. Lose yourself in it. Live it.


Now read this

The Oxford Comma and The Internet

The Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) is that extra comma that you sometimes get at the end of a list, before the and or the or. “She wrote novels, essays, and JavaScript” uses an Oxford comma. “He bought apples, butter and... Continue →