Letter: Reading for pleasure and possibly more

In a recent letter (“Critically Reading,” Feb. 16), Stephen Marsh ’13 argues that all reading is criticism, and a truly uncritical attitude toward a book is hence impossible, pace Matthew Shaffer in a recent column (“A critical education,” Feb. 12). This stance appears to merely redefine “criticism” to the point where it no longer functions as a useful idea. Granted, a piece of literature can admit diverse interpretations. It does not follow that all interpretive reading (which is to say, all reading of any worth) is sufficiently complex and reasoned to be called critical.

Even if we agree with Marsh on the vocabulary, there still remains the enormous difference between reading a book cerebrally, in a conscious effort to exhaust its ideas and discover the author’s techniques, and reading it just to be told a story, the way our ancestors read the Bible, the way we used to read “Harry Potter” and “ The Chronicles of Narnia,” and the way some of us still watch movies. As Shaffer pointed out, it comes down to what we think of ourselves: whether we think we are wiser than the best of the books we read or whether we suspect they have something to teach us about the great unteachable, life.

Bijan Aboutorabi

Feb. 17

The writer is a freshman in Trumbull College.


  • Stephen Marsh SY ’13

    Criticism need not be expressly “complex” or “reasoned” to be criticism. Like I said in my letter, there’s no way to escape critical interpretation because there is no route for interplay between a reader and a text without some sort of normative description. Any time you pick up a book for whatever reason, be it for a paper or for pleasure, your past experiences influence how you look at it and how you look at it further shapes your worldview. On top of that, there’s not an insignificant amount of social influence that also adds to this (gender performativity?)

    For an example: I really hate Fyodor Dostoevsky. A *lot*. His writing repulses me. Other people enjoy Dostoevsky immensely. Why is that? “Pleasure” in the mind is not an objective value; it’s variable depending on circumstances. The reason I hate Dostoevsky is because I think his thought process is too conservative, somewhat selfish, and unrelentingly vindictive. This is criticism. There can be badly done, poorly constructed criticism, but all reactions are critical. The only way you can avoid that is by skimming the pages and forgetting what’s said as soon as you see it, but like I said in my letter, that isn’t reading. Construction of a narrative, regardless of how complicated or well-done it is, even if that narrative is plot-driven on surface, is still critical because of the underlying assumptions and arguments it makes.

    Narnia’s actually a good example. The reason Western society reacts so favorably to Narnia and to messiah narratives in general is because of the historical influence of the Jesus myth. Perhaps you can write out a descriptive plot summary or whatever of what happens in Narnia, but that’s not how anyone actually functions and that’s not how anyone reads. We read, knowingly or unknowingly, profoundly influenced by the Judeo-Christian narrative, and that influences how much we either like or dislike a book, how we think about the characters or whatever, the list goes on.

    The point is that to actually see literature beyond a bland, dry plot summary or just pretty pictures (actually, I take that back: pretty pictures and how we understand them are shaped by biological and cultural aesthetic understanding), especially to do what Shaffer wants, we have no choice but criticism. It’s not in our control.

  • oh, freshman liberals

    Thank you Stephen Marsh! Thank you so much for informing us that history and society affect our thinking, and that therefore all truth is eviscerated! Without you, we could have never realized that we are both fatalistically determined by outside circumstances yet also ensalved by our subjective interpretations such that there is no meaning outside of our own heads.

    Brilliant, I say, brilliant!

  • Stephen Marsh SY ’13

    Er, when did I say ‘all truth was eviscerated’? There is such thing as objective reality and objective truth. Really. There’s this whole discipline (science) that tells us all about it. Literature ain’t it.

    Aside, ‘meaning’ doesn’t exist outside our own heads. ‘Meaning’ is narrative construction used to help us cope with the outside world, probably as a byproduct of the way brain plasticity evolved. There is no objective form of ‘meaning; that would be unscientific.

  • I suppose it would be convenient for you…

    …if that view were at all sustainable. Don’t you see? All I have to do is take your attack on meaning in literature and apply it to science. We can’t help but interpret the phenomenon that we experience, therefore everything that happens in a lab is every bit as subject to individual interpretation as the words in a novel, etc.

    Your claims for scientific objectivity are obviously just the leftover inheritance of the Enlightenment, a mere prejudice that we bring to the table just as we do with literature. So in your own conception, your beloved science is also lacking any real epistemological basis.

    Call me when the nihilism hits. It might take awhile but if you’re smart enough you’ll get there eventually.

  • Stephen Marsh SY ’13

    You say that like I’ve never interacted with basic postmodernism before.

    The difference between the scientific and the literary is that ‘meaning’ is irrelevant to talk about in the scientific context. The input of the observer is good evidentiary support, to be sure, but is irrelevant to the truth of the matter on any descriptive principle — gravity still obeyed relativistic principles even when we thought that gravity was Newtonian. Unlike the literary, there is a fact of the matter in the scientific. There is continuity between experience physically that there isn’t in language because language is a social construction and our physical experience is not — if you disagree, I invite you to lie down in the middle of College Street for a while and see what happens.

    That continuity is very important. While I can’t understand precisely what it is you feel when I punch you in the stomach, what both you and I know is that you find it unpleasant. What science demands is not a narrative or coherent philosophical justification of what occurs, but only description. It’s like the bland plot summary I was talking about above, but here it’s the goal. In literature words are imperfect signifiers of ideas and that influences our reading and is why the subject is important. In day to day life events are both the signifier and the signified; each expression of an event is an expression of itself. That understanding, while incomplete, theoretically has a right answer, even if we don’t have the means to know what it is yet. In lit, the right answer varies.

    I’m effectively a nihilist as it is, with existentialist tendencies; meaning is inherently arbitrary and while it’s necessary as a byproduct of evolution for us to get out of bed in the morning on an individual basis, it’s not universal, or a form, or integrated into the fabric of anything — it’s constructed out of words. That doesn’t say anything about the nature of material reality as commonly experienced, however; and that is something I strongly accept as fact. There is a difference between nihilism and postmodernism.

  • BR 2010

    Dear Stephen Marsh,

    As a senior, I would like to point out, respectfully, that you are a freshman. Print out everything you’ve written here and put it in a drawer. Then read it all again in the months before you graduate, while you’re writing your senior essay and feeling humble in the face of all the scholarship that’s come before you–as, one might hope, your experience at Yale will have taught you to feel.

    You may have known everything in high school, but you never will again.

    In particular, you have a lot to learn about what “science” is, and I’m worried you may never learn it. Fortunately, you’re at a good starting point for understanding what literature is.