Dec 6, 2009

Critical Thinking and Reading Literature

Responding to literature with a critical temperament means always being willing to respond, question, analyze, interpret, synthesize, and evaluate. It's different from reading passively, for entertainment.

  • ANALYZING, you might ask: What are the component parts? How do they work together to make the whole thing have meaning? What does the passage mean, literally?
  • INTERPRETING, you might ask: What does it mean figuratively? Are there symbolic overtones? Can it mean more than one thing? How do you prefer to read it, and what passages in the text lead you to believe this is a valid interpretation?
  • QUESTIONING, you might ask: What problems are suggested by the reading? What’s confusing? If you had the author here, what would you ask? What philosophical question(s) does the reading inspire?
  • SYNTHESIZING, you might ask: How does this reading compare or contrast with what you’ve read previously? How does it fit into a thematic scheme you might notice?
  • EVALUATING, you might ask: Is this an excellent piece of writing or poor one? What criteria can you name to establish this judgment for others? How does a particular work you're considering meet or fail to meet your criteria for excellence? What are the exact places in the writing that illustrate your positive or negative conclusions about the work?
Here are two perspectives on war taken from ancient literature. The first is from The Elder Edda, “Words of the High One” (P.B. Taylor & W.H. Auden, trans.), a Old Norse text believed to have been written over 1,000 years ago:

The coward believes he will live forever
If he holds back in the battle.
But in old age he shall have no peace
Though spears have spared his limbs.

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But I know one thing that never dies,
The glory of the great deed.

Thinking critically about this passage, I might brainstorm the following preliminary thoughts:

ANALYZE LITERAL MEANING: This brief excerpt tells us that only cowards would think to save their own skins rather than fight the battle to the end. Even if he survives, the coward will not have piece of mind; he’ll be tormented right into old age. It’s better to die, since every man is mortal anyhow. The great deed is the only thing that survives us, that has immortality. It’s better to die in battle, and possibly achieve great deeds, than to save your skin.

INTERPRET SYMBOLIC MEANING: The battle may be symbolic of life itself. Sometimes just living your life is a battle. It’s a battle to get up, go to work, get fired (laid off), fall in love, get burned, or burned out....but, this poet tells us, only cowards choose to turn their back on the battle. If we let up now, if we let life pass us by, if we refuse to seize the moment (carpe diem!) then we’ll reach old age with nothing but a tormented a pile of regrets. Better to risk it, take chances, LIVE life to its hilt, gather the “great deeds” while we can. Not only will we reach old age in peace, but we’ll glory in our accomplishments, and others will too. We can be an inspiration.

QUESTIONS: The writer mentions “great deeds.” So I assume we’re not talking about just any old ordinary deed. If I wake up tomorrow morning and manage to brush my teeth, wash my face, eat breakfast, and make it out of the house in time to get to class, I may be performing responsible deeds, but not GREAT deeds. Several questions occur to me. Assuming this writer has a point—our great deeds are immortal—then my first question is, what ranks as a “great deed”? Would the writer define a great deed the same way I would? How would I define a great deed? What’s an example of a great deed in my own mind? (I’m reflecting on my own lifetime and whatever I can conjure up from my knowledge of history, at this point.) Then I might turn philosopher and ask: how do we define the GREAT DEED for our times, in our culture? It's an old verse, but it can be pretty contemporary to think about it in this way.

If THE great deed is valor, or willingness to die, in battle, should we recognize the greatness of our enemies, who are just as willing to die in battle as we are?

Has there been anyone who has made him or herself immortal by performing a great deed recently?

SYNTHESIZE: This ancient passage can be compared (contrasted, actually) to an even more ancient poem about war. This passage is by Homer from the Illiad (Book IX), the famous ancient Greek epic of the Trojan War:

Of possessions cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting,
and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses,
but a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted
nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier.
For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.
And this would be my counsel to others also, to sail back
home again…

This passage seems to contradict the first. How can I reconcile them? Does my knowledge of their contradiction help deepen my understanding of each? If I read the first passage with an awareness of the second, I probably have to form a mental argument in order to go along with the writer’s proposition. I either agree or disagree and attempt to formulate why. All people are mortal; when they die they are utterly forgotten over time. The only way to live on beyond one’s lifespan is to accomplish something valuable, something that will inspire others who come after. Great deeds are inspiring; they are the only path to immortality. Therefore, accomplishing great deeds is valuable at all costs, even the supreme cost, one’s life. Or, I may say—this life is all we have; it’s precious. To lose one’s life for the sake of everlasting glory is a waste. We cannot be there to partake of the sweetness of that glory once we’re dead. It’s better to enjoy the simple things in life while we have life; we should not throw our lives away for vainglorious purposes. (But Achilles does choose glory, so it becomes pretty difficult to say for sure which side the author is really on.)

On the other hand, I may not choose to engage the readings on that kind of philosophical or personal level. Maybe I merely create separate mental files to accommodate their differences. Perhaps I mentally file one passage as “pro-war” and the other as “anti-war” poetry. These are categories that may be useful later as I read other poems, or other literature.

Until you read a LOT of literature, you probably won’t have a clear sense about what makes “great” literature and what doesn't. Even experienced readers may not be all that great at being evaluative critics. As a student, you may even feel that finding something hard to understand makes it bad. But that would be a mistake. Like anything, learning to read literature takes time and practice. And developing an appreciation for great literature comes with exposure to the good and the bad. You may be tempted to say that you don’t like Shakespeare, for instance, because his language isn’t exactly the same as yours and you have to do a bit of work to piece out the meaning…but if you dismiss him, you are dismissing what most of the world agrees is one of the greatest—if not THE greatest—writers the world has ever known. To some extent you need to be willing to work as you read, and extend the benefit of the doubt until you are really sure you are evaluating a piece of writing on objective grounds, and not just on the basis of whether you personally struggled to comprehend it. In this course, you’re being “introduced” to literature…that means you’re being introduced to a new set of critical tools for thinking about literature and becoming a more thoughtful, more effective reader of literature. And hopefully, as you get more practice and become a more sophisticated reader, you’ll be able to judge whether a work of literature is excellent or poor. You’ll be able to sense whether it’s on the level of Shakespeare—truly original, multidimensional, moving, evocative, thought-provoking, dramatic, beautiful—or whether it’s on the level of formula: flat, predictable, familiar, void.