So my boy Tom and I were recently talking about literature, as two guys are apt to do when not talking about baseball or girls. And I suddenly got on a rant, thinking about an English class I had in college.
The professor was talking about all the different levels we can read great works of literature on (on which we can read great works of literature). He listed the usual suspects, the symbolic level, the feminist level, the deconstructionist level, the post-modernist level and so on. I said, but what about the literal level: the story itself? And he looked annoyed and said, well, of course, if it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t bother with any of this stuff.
But, I thought, you know, bub, in my eighteen years of schooling, I don’t think anyone ever pointed out some basic truths, like this one: regardless of what The Great White Whale might or might not symbolize and all that junk, at its heart Moby Dick is just A GREAT DAMN STORY. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may be Important because it was the first American novel to be written in dialect. But people aren’t reading it a hundred and twenty years later because of that. They’re reading it because it’s A GREAT DAMN STORY. A Tale of Two Cities? A GREAT DAMN STORY.
Obvious? Maybe. But I think too many get blinded and miss the forest for the trees. Just say it once, then. Talk about which parts of the book got your pulse pounding. Talk about which parts choked you up, which parts infuriated you, which parts gave you the goosebumps or had you begging the characters to go back or NOT to go back. Maybe even talk about the visuals, the characterization, the language itself, whether it’s gorgeous or pedestrian and whether or not that was a conscious decision on the author’s part. Do that and THEN really dive in and start pulling it apart and seeing what it’s made of.
But don’t forget the most basic fact: it’s a great story. And stories are at the heart of every single culture that lives on earth, and have been for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. To overlook or even gloss over that fact is to gloss over or overlook a very basic and integral part of what it is to be human. And it’s a hell of an insult to the person who wrote the book in question, as well as the book itself.