Explaining why I’m an illiterati

In 2009, David L. Ulin, then book editor of the LA Times, wrote a column called “The Lost Art of Reading,” a piece I noted at the time. Ulin, still a book critic with the paper, was encouraged to expand the column into a longer essay, which was published late last year as The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, Ulin opens the book with some observations that (1) are rarely heard in literary circles, (2) I’ve held for a long time, and (3) explain why I have never been among the literary intelligentsia but, rather, an “illiterati.”

Ulin’s book starts with his 15-year-old son reading The Great Gatsby for a ninth grade humanities class. As we have all experienced, virtually any literature class pushes “finding the hidden nuance in literally every sentence.” Yet, Ulin observes:

Now, I recognize this as one of the fallacies of teaching literature in the classroom, the need to seek a reckoning with everything, to imagine a framework, a rubric, in which each little piece makes sense. Literature — at least the literature to which I respond — doesn’t work that way; it is conscious, yes, but with room for serendipity, a delicate balance between craft and art.

Like Ulin, I began wondering early in my education how authors packed every sentence with and kept track of the subtleties, meaningful metaphors and allegorical allusions others found in simple phrases and descriptions. Plainly, all the novelists we read (or were forced to read) in literature classes were geniuses for whom even words like “the” or “and’ were stepping stones to a big, sometimes hidden, idea. Yet I would go further than Ulin. I think this need for “reckoning” everything persists outside the classroom and finds it way into many discussions or reviews of literature.

Maybe I’m a simpleton but isn’t it possible that sometimes an author is just telling a story? After all, we’ve all told ghost stories or tall tales that had no symbolism or meaning other than trying to scare or entertain. Of course, maybe the fact a book requires searching for symbolism and nuances is what differentiates “literature” or “literary” fiction from just plain novels. Here’s the thing, though. I read fiction for enjoyment and relaxation. I want to go to the places in the story. I want to love or hate the characters. I want to be part of their interactions. I want to become engrossed in their stories. I want their perspective of persons, places and events, whether ordinary or extraordinary. As Ian McEwan said in a recent interview, “The novel …is just an irreplaceable means of knowing what it’s like to be someone else.”

This isn’t to say I don’t grasp ideas or themes. Admittedly, maybe I miss some symbolism or meaning which, in turn, means I have a lesser understanding of the work or of what it’s like to be someone else. But I know that parsing sentences and paragraphs for that purpose disrupts my empathetic connection with a work. I want to be absorbed, almost oblivious to what’s around me. To me, reading is an exercise in emotion, not rationality or reasoning. Does viewing the cowardly lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as William Jennings Bryan really add to enjoyment of the tale itself? Anyone can see the representations of good and evil in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But, as Tolkien said, “To ask if the Orcs ‘are’ Communists is to me as sensible as asking if Communists are Orcs.”

So, that’s what makes me an “illiterati.” Whether for good or bad, it’s how I read and enjoy literature and the way I’ve done so for decades. Who knows? Perhaps it’s just that I’m too lazy or stupid to discover or read a subtle meaning or allegory in a particular character or language. Maybe it all hearkens back to rebelling against the strictures of classroom literary analysis. All I know is it is unlikely to change — and that it certainly doesn’t cheapen my love and enjoyment of reading. And when you get down to it, what’s important is that love, not its form or how it arises.


[Interpretation] is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.”

Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation: And Other Essays

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