Cassandra Clare once said, “One must always be careful of books and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.” I have always considered literature to be a double art. It is an art in the way that things are written, and it is an art for what is written. I used to consider that the only purpose of reading was for entertainment, therefore books such as The Crying of Lot 49, that did not fit that purpose did not deserved to be read. When I began to write my own stories, in high school, I understood that literature is more than entertainment. Good writing should make readers think by having more layers than pure entertainment and by allowing the reader to interpret the work.
As a reader I always make sure to read more than once. The first read is just for the plot and to enjoy the way in which things are written. The rest I use to answer questions such as “could this be extrapolated to explain human behavior?” or “could this be viewed as a criticism of society?” or simply “what is the meaning beyond the story in itself?” I enjoy learning about the authors because it can help me understand their work better. Knowing the life of the authors puts a new perspective into their work, not only in terms of meaning but also in why they write the way they do.
There are stories like “The Gospel According to Mark” by Borges and “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, that don’t seem to have any obvious connection with society and yet they become criticisms of our behavior as a community. Poems like “Ask Me” by William Stafford that reflect on the nature of life and how it evolves through time. The Crying of Lot 49 is a social criticism that explores the importance of individuality and the meaning of identity. Other stories such as “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker pose human predicaments by exposing a slice of ordinary life.
To be critic of literature is not to express whether you like the piece or not, it is about being able to interpret the story and find its meaning. It is important to remember that stories, poems and plays, do not have one universal meaning. That is why reading something more than once can be rewarding, because each time we’ll find something new that we missed before or we’ll interpret it differently just because we have changed. A slight change in tone can make a eulogy sound like a satire. In that sense, the way in which we approach the text can influence how we interpret it.
Reading literature is not just reading. It is about looking beyond the mere plot and finding meaning. Good readers ask questions and literature provokes questions. As Casandra Clare said, words can change us. They can make us question who we are, they can teach us a lesson, they can persuade us towards a belief, but most importantly, literature –words– can make us think.