Warning: “Don’t Read with Your Eyes”

past the point of love, (made it to #2 explore !) [10,00streamviews!]

In my first years of teaching high school English, I would assign my students to read a novel, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, and I would hear, “That book is racist! Why do I have to read this?” We would read passages from The Illiad or The Odyssey and students would say, “Wait – sex slaves, violence, multiple wives and lovers, revenge and gore? Why do I have to read this?” Later, we would talk about Oedipus and read Antigone, and my students would say, “This is gross! Incest? Stabbing out your own eyes? Why do I have to read this?” (Notice a pattern?)

What was my answer? “You’re right. And you’re wrong. Yes, you still have to read it.”

I tried to explain how we could not look at a work based on our own world view.Then, in my last years of teaching, an author named Thomas C. Foster wrote a book called How to Read Literature Like a Professor, and he provided a better way to explain this.

Foster has an entire chapter entitled, “Don’t Read with Your Eyes” (emphasis on the your). And he’s right. We can’t read books written decades, centuries, millennia before our time and expect them to hold the same values. In the same vein, you can’t read even modern works expecting them to hold your same values. Well, you can. But then all the stuff you read starts to sound the same.

To Kill a Mockingbird, standard in the high school canon, uses words for black Americans (even the good characters use them) we would not dream of saying today. However, you have to read the book through the eyes of the Great Depression or even the 1960s to understand the scope of the author’s purpose.

The culture in the days of The Illiad and The Odyssey had issues for other things – cowardice chief among them – yet they did not see a problem with sex slaves, regular slaves, concubines, etc. For Antigone and the whole Oedipus issue, I would tell my students, “The Greeks thought it was gross, too. Hence the eye-stabbings, hangings, wailings and misery!”

Am I saying we should just agree with ancient Greeks and be okay with multiple wives? No. I am perfectly fine with monogamy, thank you very much, but you cannot dismiss an important work of fiction based on beliefs the ancient Greeks just didn’t have. You cannot automatically rule To Kill a Mockingbird as racist and refuse to read it, when it has some of the best literature has to offer (especially to a high school student’s level of reading).

As a reader, you need to understand the context of something, understand the time period and culture, before judging it or dismissing it. By leaving your own eyes on the nightstand and reading through different lenses, you learn to appreciate literature outside of your comfort level. You even discover new layers of meaning you might not have noticed in the past. If you find yourself reading a work of literature, and wonder, “Why is this such a big deal? Why are they reacting like it’s the end of the world?” Chances are, it’s the end of their world for some reason.

For instance, when you read Pride and Prejudice, and you are confused as to why Elizabeth Bennet is so embarrassed at the ball at Bingley’s house, you need to figure out why. Our American eyes would probably think, “I like the Bennets. They actually say what’s on their minds and liven up a perfectly dull party.” Yet Jane Austen’s eyes point us to a time and culture where dancing every dance and flirting with all of the men of the regiment brought more than a roll of the eyes. Later in the novel, why would Elizabeth speak adamantly against her silly sister Lydia heading off to flirt with the officers at Brighton? You need to understand her culture and framework. Elizabeth was looking at the possibility of not only losing respectability, but also livelihood – not only for Lydia – but for the entire Bennet family (plus, you know, dealing with her conflicting feelings about dreamy Mr. Darcy). A poor reputation (namely for young women) was not only bad for the social life, but a one way ticket to poverty.

So, when do I put my own eyes back on? When should we throw in the towel on a novel despite setting aside all of our own values to see its worth? Well, honestly, whenever you decide. However, I encourage you to give it a try. Personally, I draw the line when I can no longer find anything beautiful or redeeming in a story. The only time I remember walking out of a movie was a few years ago for District 9. I kept trying to muster through the grotesque scenes and violence, but I couldn’t get past it to see the beautiful. The only novel I didn’t finish reading for a class in college? Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Trust me. It’s not worth it. Well, I say that, but I had a friend who ended up writing her senior symposium paper on this novel and defending the redeeming qualities of the scatological in fiction. I admired her for it, but it did not make me want to read the book. As a reader, you have to use your own gauge and standard, but I challenge you to widen your scope and stretch yourself.

What books pushed you beyond your comfort zone, but made you better in the long run?

  1. #1 by mdwiggains on April 27, 2012 - 12:34 pm

    Some great thoughts here Kelly… The way that I have normally been taught about this idea is couched in the terms of “author’s context” and “author’s intent”. As I read this, I wondered how much do we need to “Not read with your eyes” when it comes to the Bible. So often we read our own thoughts into what we read (as you suggest), but when we do that with Scripture I believe we are in danger of not only of mis-interpretation but also missing the point all together. We have to have the ability to lay down our own eyes and let scripture speak.
    This conversation might also fit into our understanding of the “inerrancy” of God’s word… if not just a thought on how we read the Bible.
    Sorry if I got all “preacher” on your comment section. Love ya.

  2. #2 by kellywiggains on April 27, 2012 - 1:13 pm

    We welcome preacher talk around here. I agree with you – laying down our eyes can also help with objectivity – in all forms of literature.

  3. #3 by Misty on April 27, 2012 - 2:40 pm

    I love this idea, Kelly, and I’ll have to check out Foster’s book. I struggled with this a lot at my last high school teaching position. The students are VERY conservative, so much so that they would shut down before really understanding a book. I had juniors who hated The Great Gatsby (italics won’t work 😦 ) because there was an affair, scandalous parties, and a murder. They struggled to see that Tom and Daisy were the real culprits and that Fitzgerald found himself in the same lifestyle but just couldn’t change his ways. I love the novel because it is Fitzgerald’s warning of what a life filled with selfish pursuits leads to. I think my students would value the book for the same reason, but I wasn’t very successful in convincing some that there is a redeeming value to a novel, even if the subject matter is rated PG or PG13. Maybe when I teach high school again, I can be armed with Foster’s idea.

    When you asked, “When should we throw in the towel on a novel despite setting aside all of our own values to see its worth,” I thought of Milton’s “Areopagitica.” Have you read it? If you haven’t, Milton argued for post-publication censorship in response to Parliament’s Licensing Order of 1643. One of his claims is that the reader is the one who determines the value of a text. If a reader is never tested because a higher authority determines what is good or bad, then the reader is a like a cloistered hermit who does not know if he is really choosing good because there is no other choice. I like this idea. We shouldn’t be closed off from the world, but instead test the ideas that come from it. Of course, we actually have to put some work into it and test the ideas, not just blindly accepting (or rejecting) everything that comes.

    Thanks for getting this mommy brain working this morning. I enjoy conversations like this.

  4. #4 by Lauren@THCW on April 27, 2012 - 10:37 pm

    First: WOWZA, those are some seriously smokey eyes that the lady (I’m assuming and hoping it’s a lady) in the picture is using to not read with 🙂

    Second, good points. It drives me nuts when people judge books/TV/movies/theater/etc. in the context of whether or not it accurately portrayed their own individual world view. It’s such a narrow-minded way to view things, and when you do that, you severely limit the enjoyment you can get out of entertainment.

    Of course it has to be within reason. Should you read/watch/listen to something just because someone’s told you it has artistic merit, even though it offends you to your very core? Of course not. But there’s something to be gleaned from all sorts of entertainment, even when the characters/lyrics/imagery/whatever doesn’t exactly line up with what we personally believe.

    I’ve reached the point in life where I’ve stopped exposing myself to entertainment that doesn’t entertain me, simply because I’ve heard that I “should.” I’ve watched enough depressing indie movies to learn that I don’t like being depressed for the sake of art. So I don’t watch them anymore, even if they are artistically superior to the shiny blockbusters. Sometimes I just want to watch a Michael Bay movie, dangit, and I don’t care if it technically sucks. I just want to watch stuff blow up. (And do I want things to blow up in real life? Of course not).

    Same with books. I actually kind of hated The Great Gatsby [ducks under table]. Not because I think it’s poorly written or because it offended my conservative sensibilities, but just because I didn’t like any of the characters, and I have a hard time liking something where I don’t like the characters. But I admit it was was intelligent and well-written, and had thought-provoking subject matter. It just wasn’t for me.

    And I liked Twilight, which has the artistic merit of a sock and is about vampires and DARK SCARY THINGS which some would consider offensive. But life just seems too short to be offended by socks.

    I think I may have drifted a bit from your original topic….Bottom line, I agree. Well said. Bravo.

  5. #5 by Laura Shannon on April 27, 2012 - 10:40 pm

    Atticus might suggest that “You never really understand a [book] until you consider things from [the author’s] point of view – until you climb into [the author’s] skin and walk around in it.”

  6. #6 by kellywiggains on April 27, 2012 - 11:02 pm

    I agree with your point about just watching something for art’s sake, even if it bores you to tears. There’s a fine line between stretching yourself and trying to be someone you are not. Besides, I think we can look at books similarly to how we look at food: an appetizer, a main course, dessert, and midnight junk food. Not everything you read has to be a well-balanced meal of lean meats, hearty vegetables, and whole grains. You can have dessert on occasion, even the late night Twinkie once in a while.

    In other news, you crack me up, Lauren. I’m so glad you are my friend. =)

  7. #7 by kellywiggains on April 27, 2012 - 11:02 pm

    Exactly! Love that Atticus.

  8. #8 by kellywiggains on April 27, 2012 - 11:06 pm


    Thanks so much for this insight. I hadn’t gone the direction of censorship in my brain – so glad I have intelligent friends. What a great point! Also, your last comment about getting your mommy brain working? My #1 reason for starting this blog. That totally made my day! Thanks.

  9. #9 by Elizabeth on April 27, 2012 - 11:43 pm

    Mitch totally stole my first thoughts! I have a teacher who constantly emphasizes the context in which each passage of Scripture was written, the things that the readers would have known, the Old Testament ideas that are behind the New Testament words, etc. Same point as yours, to look at what you read through the eyes of the author or first readers, just applied to the Bible.

    As to the rest, what would you say about the idea of protecting your heart from things that are not of God? About “whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…think about such things”? I certainly agree with you that, for example, you shouldn’t judge older books by modern ethical standards, and that some books use horrible things to make good points. I also think that whatever you put into your mind and heart is really hard to get rid of and that we should be careful what we read/watch/listen to. How do you balance these things?

  10. #10 by Elizabeth on April 27, 2012 - 11:46 pm

    I’ve never read it, but from what you say I really like that idea of Milton’s too! A smart man once told me that to really become firm in what I believe, to stretch my mind to new ideas, and to become a better writer, I need to read books by people with whom I disagree rather than solely surrounding myself with people who think the same way I do.

  11. #11 by kellywiggains on April 28, 2012 - 1:37 am

    Great question, Elizabeth. I think seeking things that are beautiful, lovely, admirable, etc. are all still attainable goals – even in secular things. When you look for truth and beauty, you can almost always find it. Yes, balance is important, but I don’t know if moral balance is the same as moral sterilization – killing off all of the “evil” or “germy” things in order to prevent disease. I’ve struggled with this idea, too.

  12. #12 by Lauren@THCW on April 28, 2012 - 2:35 am

    Aw, gee. *blush*

  13. #13 by Lauren@THCW on April 28, 2012 - 2:36 am

    Kelly – I like it. Moral balance vs. moral sterilization. And just throwing this idea out there: if moral sterilization was the goal, most of the Old Testament would be off limits.

  14. #14 by kellywiggains on April 28, 2012 - 3:00 am

    Yes! I wanted to say something about the Old Testament, too. The Bible is not a safe book for sure. I mean David and Goliath? Great story of the underdog with God on his side taking out the big guy. Then, David chops off Goliath’s head and parades it around…wait. The Bible has lots of stuff like that in it, but it is true and good and beautiful. Love it.

  15. #15 by Lauren@THCW on April 28, 2012 - 3:52 am

    LOL. My favorite is Hosea.

    God: Go marry a hooker.
    Hosea: But…she’s a hooker. Will she stop being a hooker?
    God: No.
    Gomer: [continues to be a hooker]
    My kids: Mommy, what’s a hooker?
    Me: [runs and hides]

  16. #16 by Elizabeth on April 28, 2012 - 11:24 pm

    Oh, I completely agree. I like the statement of moral balance vs moral sterilization. Many books, the Bible included, do use horrible things to make beautiful points. And, like I said above, in reply to Misty, we should read books by people with whom we disagree rather than solely surrounding ourselves with people who think the same way that we do.

    I just also think that we should be careful to not put ugly things in our hearts and minds that are simply that: ugly. Romance books with copious amounts of sex or adventure novels filled with extraneous foul language (and by that I don’t mean any book with any foul language at all…again, sometimes the culture of a setting or the nature of the book may require such a thing) should, perhaps, not be given room in our minds.

    I just wondered if you had a way that you use to judge the difference between ugliness that has a point to it and ugliness that is just there to infect the world.

    And on a side note, my eldest is always very worried about poor Goliath and wants him to “feel better soon”. She went through a stage where all of her art work included David and Goliath eating at picnic tables together and playing on the swing set together. (Not that I could tell what the drawing was…she had to explain it)

  17. #17 by Robbie on May 1, 2012 - 1:38 am

    Oh, Kelly! Wish you were back in my class!! I miss your thoughtfulness. I have read How to….Like a Prof and found it great. This is why I am not ready to retire. I still find it ALL fascinating – the literature and the kids’ reactions to it. Keep blogging. I love to read it!!

  18. #18 by kellywiggains on May 1, 2012 - 2:38 am

    Mrs. Hale,
    Thank you! I’m so glad you are still teaching. You are one of the best!

  19. #19 by kellywiggains on May 1, 2012 - 2:44 am

    Elizabeth, I think the key to your question might be surrounding yourself with people you trust to offer good recommendations and searching for the beautiful. Romance novels? I typically stay away. For one, most of them are poorly written or formulaic.

    I love how tender-hearted your babies are – just like you, my friend. My two boys think “David and Goliath” is about the only story worth reading in the Bible. They love the part where the giant dies.

  20. #20 by Elizabeth on May 2, 2012 - 1:03 am

    Ha ha, I don’t think I’ve EVER read a Romance novel! I definitely rely a lot on others’ recommendations. I’ve found certain people (yourself included!) whose opinions on books I hugely respect. I like cultivating those friendships!

  1. The Wilder Life: A Fresh Look at a Beloved Childhood Classic « Kelly Wiggains
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