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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

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And Just Who Does a Book Belong To?

You read a book. You love it. Then you find out that the author has some weird aversion to spaghetti. Suddenly, it hits you that the antagonist of the novel--a giant alien named Schapetti with long slimy tentacles--is actually a metaphor for spaghetti and how it pales in comparison to other pastas: fettuccine, penne, tortellini, vermicelli, ziti, linguini, angel hair, bow-tie, macaroni, and those are just the ones I can spell. 

But you love spaghetti. More than any other pasta. And you also love this book. 

I think often when reading a book, we, as readers, can't help but feel a sense of ownership towards the the story and it's characters. Reading a book is such a personal act. It's not like going to the movies, where you are inevitably influenced by what the rest of the audience laughs at. We relate to the characters on a personal level, because we are invested. We alone have traveled across space and time with Commander Farfalle and his dignified crew of miscreants (commonly known as the Rigatoni). We alone can empathize. And we alone actually know them, because we made the journey with them alone.

And after we've finished, it's hard for us to imagine that there was ever a time when our beloved characters never existed, and would never exist, if it hadn't been for the author who bore them. But what of the author?

My good friend Alex recently shared her experience with me upon discovering the personal beliefs of Ender's Game author, Orson Scott Card. Though the series is filled with unbaptized supernatural beings and open-minded characters who struggle with their faith, Card, himself, is a devout Mormon who has strongly spoken out against LGBT lifestyle and marriage. Though Alex may not share the same beliefs as Card, she still loves Ender's Game, because, frankly, it's a pretty damn good book.  

Which brings me to this question:

Does the knowledge of an author's intent and/or beliefs add to your experience of reading a book? Or should a book's interpretation solely be left up to the reader?

In the world of literary theory and criticism, there exists a certain school of thought, formally known as Formalism, which would agree with the latter. Formalists choose to define and analyze a work of literature without acknowledging it's authorship or it's potential cultural and societal influences.

But sometimes it's hard to avoid the author's influences, especially when a novel receives widespread attention. Take the Twilight series for example. I think I can assume that most readers are familiar with the series (whether they enjoyed reading/watching the saga or were simply forced to relive the story after mistakingly choosing to sit next to a group of tween girls on the subway). But just in case, the story revolves around an incredibly attractive "vegetarian" vampire who falls in love with an impressively plain girl. And even though he wants to kill her more than he's ever wanted to kill anyone, he resists. Knowing that the author, Stephanie Meyer, is a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, many have speculated that Edward's burning desire to kill is a metaphor for lust, and his unyielding self-control closely resembles the church's position on abstinence. After all, Edward refuses to turn Bella into a vampire until after they're married.

Now take a look at the Christian parallels in C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. Though he claims not to have consciously incorporated his personal beliefs into the fantasy world, he could not deny the evidence of their presence after the fact. Come on, I mean, Aslan dies and rises again?

Then there's Philip Pullman, outspoken atheist and author of The Golden Compass, the first children's book in a trilogy that's apparently littered with anti-church motifs. 

But I guess what I'm really asking is, should knowledge about that author's lifestyle change the way you feel about a book? Formalists would say no.

Flannery O'Connor, openly devout Catholic and one of my favorite authors, would say that a writer's faith doesn't limit his/her field of vision, but rather, expands it. And if you've read any of her fiction, you would come to find that the worlds created in her stories are not governed by any dogma. In an essay called "The Church and the Fiction Writer," Flannery writes:

"I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery."

So then why should we, as readers, limit ourselves in interpretation? 

Last week, Alex wrote about how she re-reads Harry Potter every year. Sometimes when you reread the same book at a different point in your life, your perspective changes. You get something new out of it. So if perspective and meaning can change depending on age, then it most certainly can change depending on the reader. 

Personally, it's interesting to know a bit about the author, especially when it's a book I love. I often find myself reading the inside jackets, wondering about the genius behind the black-and-white headshot able to inspire me with words. But at the end of the day, we are affected by the story and the characters, not the author. The meaning becomes our own, because we are the only one with our perspective. And the author can't possibly account for that. Because despite what the title of this post might suggest, books don't have existential crises. They are what they are. Though that might be a very different thing for you than it is for me. 

To sum up, I'm going to quote my friend Alex here, "[A book] belongs to whoever reads it." 
I couldn't have said it better. 

Feel free to share your own opinion in the comments. Opinions about spaghetti and other pasta shapes are also welcomed (unless you're anti-spaghetti of course).

1 comment:

  1. I agree. A book belongs to the reader; and just like all of our other best friends, time may change our perception, but not our love for them. Oh, and they don't call me Spaghetti Kid for nothing!