I wanted to spice things up at book club. So I picked up (er, downloaded) a copy of How to Read Literature Like a Professor (2003). In it, Thomas C. Foster, a professor at the University of Michigan, Flint, gives lots of easy-to-follow advice on interpreting stories. If a character gets submerged in water, that means baptism. If she eats a meal, that means communion. If he is 33, celibate, and wounded on the hands and feet, that means Christ. And if you cannot interpret your reading in light of Christianity, you can always turn to Shakespeare, Greek mythology, or even fairy tales.
I don’t exactly disagree with Foster. His advice is surely not wrong. But nor does it seem entirely right. By the end of the book, I knew one thing. I don’t read literature like a professor.
I thought about writing a rejoinder. How to Read Literature Like a Book Club Member would offer updated advice for these modern times. If a character lives in New York, that means ethnic identity, usually Jewishness. If she gazes at the empty sky over lower Manhattan, that means 9/11. If he goes to California, that means renewal and venture capital. And if you cannot interpret your reading in light of east and west, you can always turn to that exotic wasteland of unexpressed emotions and bad food that lies in the middle of the country.
But in truth, that didn’t feel right, either. Whether they come from professors or mere mortals, equations like “X means Y” don’t leave enough room for readers to actively interpret anything. To be fair to Foster, he repeatedly tells his readers that they must formulate their own arguments. But we are unlikely to come up with anything truly original when we must drag so much baggage along with us.
After thinking about it more, I decided that the very idea of meaning is overrated. I’m putting myself out on a limb here, but consider a novel like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010). It has thirteen chapters. They jump from roughly 2007, to 2006, 1979, 1973, 2005, 1997, 2002, 2007, 1998, 1992, 1989, and finally to the 2020’s in California and the 2020’s in New York City.
That’s a pretty complicated set-up. To boot, I had to calculate those dates myself, using hints from the text. So while the novel undoubtedly conveys meaning, you’d lose the whole point if you tried to interpret it using “X means Y” equations. In Goon Squad, the reader’s most important task is to grapple with its structure.
If you think about it, many novels offer similar challenges. Some novels sprawl, like Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone (2009), which encompasses everything from genital mutilation to liver transplants to Ethiopian politics. Some stay confined, like Emma Donoghue’s Room (2010), which portrays the mental world of a five-year-old boy. Some alternate among the voices of different characters, like Toni Morrison’s A Mercy (2008), where slaves and slaveholders alike narrate the story. And — now we’re really having fun — some offer a novel-within-a-novel, like Ian MacEwan’s Atonement (2001), whose text was authored by Briony, the main character, who admits that she strays from reality in telling her tale.
To enjoy these novels is to enjoy their structure. When we read them, we expand, contract, reorient, and recombine every element in the story. And when we do that, we cannot help but create original interpretations of our own, which is a lot of fun. So it dawned on me. I don’t read literature like a professor. But I do read it like a linguist. Or, since I admittedly enjoy book club more than Journal of Linguistics, let’s say I read it like a thirsty linguist.
What does that even mean? Linguists obsess first with the structure of language, and only secondarily with the meaning. When Noam Chomsky launched the modern study of linguistics with his book Syntactic Structures (1957), he set out to to develop a theory of linguistic structure that didn’t make reference to any one language in particular. “[W]e shall suggest,” he wrote, “that this purely formal investigation of the structure of language has interesting implications for semantic studies.”
It sounds awfully abstract. I’ll stay neutral with regard to whether Chomsky and his program succeeded in the realm of grammars. But in the realm of literature, I’m staying out on my limb. Putting structure first can be a remarkably enjoyable way to read, and it leads us to deeper meanings would otherwise be possible. So I figured out my rejoinder. Welcome. You just finished the part one of How to Read Literature Like a Thirsty Linguist.