Some people are so religiously devoted to a method of reading that we may properly call them Methodists. Others feel the text should be all things to all men, which is good politics but bad for criticism. For if every interpretation is welcomed open-armed, then little room is left for pressing one reading against any another.Lolita may then be read as a spiritual allegory, a
policy solution, or anything else in between with equal justification. Two agnostics at The New York Times, Adam Kirsch and Anna Holmes, debate the matter. Ultimately, both invoke the impenetrable defense: Its subjective! Where do they differ? On Virgil, Kirsch writes:
One thing he surely did not think he was writing was a fortunetelling guide. But soon enough, readers began to use the poem to perform the sortes Virgilianae, or Virgilian lots, in which you would think of a question and then select a verse at random to
answer it. Using the Aeneid as a kind of oracle remained popular for a very long time: The emperor Hadrian did it in the second century A.D., and King Charles I was still doing it 1,500 years later.
Here, if anywhere, is surely an example of reading a book the wrong way.
Centuries ahead, Mrs. Holmes opines:
As for reading portions of a narrative out of order, some books are obviously meant to be consumed this way
(collections of essays and poetry; reference books and anthologies) or, at the very least, manage to dispense with the very idea of a beginning and an end. Skipping or skimming parts of a narrative should not only be expected but encouraged, particularly if an author is writing without clarity or purpose or showing off. Lifes too short to slog through some smarty-pants attempt to demonstrate a mastery of mechanical engineering or botany.
Advice that would make it difficult to learn either mechanical engineering or botany: Or am I just reading her unjustly? Says who? Blunt surface reading can lapse just as easily into prating interpretation, and it is not clear which is the worse. Ideally, close reading will show the work of literature as standing in tension with itself. It is the task of the critic then to tilt the lenticular, showing the immense implications that subtle differences in meaning can have. Is it “April is the cruelest month,” or “April is the cruelest month”? Or December?
Read the debate at The New York Times