Tuesday, December 01, 2009
It occurred to me the other day that I am always passing judgment as I read. It’s as if I’m sitting on the “bench” in my courtroom handing down rulings – judging either the value of what I’m reading, or the meaning of it. Similar to a courtroom judge, I am totally focused on my judgments -- preoccupied, you might say, with evaluating the worth and significance of the words. It’s like a full-time job when I’m reading – always judging, judging, judging. What I might be missing because of this all-consuming fascination with passing judgment is the important task of simply understanding what the author meant when she or he wrote the words. This attempt at truly understanding an author’s intent is not an act of judgment, but more an act of listening, of leaning forward and squinting our brows and genuinely hearing what the author is trying to tell us. It’s an act, I might say, of unselfishness – an attempt to look away from our own preferences and beliefs and get inside an author’s intentions. In a time when self-absorption seems almost unchecked in our society, it’s particularly important that we readers learn to turn away from ourselves now and then and pay careful attention to what great writers are actually saying. One might ask, “How can we know for sure what an author actually meant, especially a dead ones?”, but that’s not too dissimilar from asking how we can know what a speaker means, someone who’s talking to us at meeting, for instance. There’s only one way, and that’s by attentively listening, both to the speaker and to an author whom we’re reading. It’s all too easy to give up trying to understand a speaker’s intent and just pass a quick judgment on what his words mean to us, and it’s just as easy to do the same thing in reading, especially if the reading is challenging. We can toss in the towel, make a usable judgment, and say, “Oh well, I’m not sure what the author meant, but here’s what I get out of it.” What I hope to do, both in my future reading and in my teaching of teenagers, is encourage more listening than judging. “Listen carefully to what the author is actually telling you,” might be my advice both to myself and my young literary scholars.