SCIENCE FICTION UNIVERSITY:The Purpose of Art: Part Ten: How to View Literature

Charlie W. Starr
Charlie W. Starr's picture

In this quarter- long view on the purpose of art, we’re now looking at the best ways to view particular art forms. Last issue, we looked at less popular arts like painting and theater. Now we turn to the more mainstream arts, starting with books. Most of the books we read for fun tell stories. They’re not always fictional, but they’re usually books with characters, action, dialog and narration. Since we’re discussing “art,” I’m going to focus on what we call literature, usually poetry and novels. Sometimes it’s hard for younger people to think of books as popular or entertaining. The existence of seems to say otherwise. We may read less, but we haven’t stopped reading.


I’ll start with a couple of tips on poetry, though it tends to be less popular (except in the form of song lyrics). When you read poetry, take your time, don’t expect a poem to make sense the first time you read it, and read it several times to make sense of it—that’s the best tip I can give you: read poems more than once in order to understand them. Otherwise, don’t read line by line, try to figure out who’s doing the talking in the poem (it’s not always the poet), and look up any words you don’t know.


On to books. My first tip: always carry one with you, wherever you go. You never know when you’re going to be stuck somewhere and can read a little. My second tip: make time for reading. I tell my students that, if they’ll just read a page a day, at the end of a year they’ll have finished a 360 page book. If you don’t have a lot of time to read, slow and steady can still get it done. My next tip? Though my wife would say never look at the back cover or dust jacket summary of a book (because she enjoys being surprised), I say preview a book when you get it: read the dust jacket or back cover, the contents page, and any note from the author (a foreword or introduction).
Then some tips to follow once you’ve started reading:
1. Read with imagination. You’re not looking for ideas but experiences. You’re looking to see other places with other peoples’ eyes.
2. Don’t skip the descriptions. If you see an unusual description in a book (especially a lengthy one), it may have symbolic or thematic meaning.
3. Circle names in the book until you know who all the characters are.
4. Keep track of the plot—if you get confused about events, go back and re-read.
5. Pay attention to characters as people—when you understand the people in a story, you understand the challenges they’re meant to face and overcome and can see how they grow.
6. Laugh at the funny parts, cry at the sad parts—you’re supposed to have feelings about what you read.
7. Look for symbols and themes. If objects or ideas repeat in a book, they probably mean something. Mark them and try to figure out what they mean.
8. Don’t be afraid to pause and think about what you’re reading.
9. And remember all the questions we’ve considered in previous articles: Was it entertaining? Was it an honest portrayal? Was it beautiful (well written, well storied)? What kind of truth value did it have? Was it moral?

The Best Books

Finally, I want to encourage you to also read some literary “classics.” Mark Twain defined a classic as a book everyone talks about and nobody reads. I think you should read some. Recall the distinction I made some issues back between “enjoyable” and “admirable” beauty. Though I enjoy a good sci-fi novel, the classics teach me to see bigger things. Developing a sense of admirable beauty for them can affect us in many good ways and may eventually teach us to enjoy them as well.

If you decide to read Shakespeare’s plays, I recommend you see them performed first—on stage or at least in a movie. But read them, too! As for what other classics to read, here’s a short list to start. If you get through it, email me, and I’ll send you a bigger one. Begin with children’s classics if you haven’t read very many: Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, At the Back of the North Wind, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia. When asked what adult classics to read, I tell people, “Start with the Bible—cover to cover. And then read the great Western epics: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and Moby-Dick.” After that, there are all kinds of directions you can go, but I said I’d keep the list short.
Next week: movies and television.