Present Reading


A passage from a book recommended in a list of Catholic Authors:

from The Essence of the Thing
Madeleine St. John

Guy entered the room. 'Tell us,' said Susannah, 'what could be better than marriage, Guy?' 'Salvation,'he replied. His elders howled. 'Where do you learn these words?' asked Susannah. 'I learned that in R.E.,'said Guy. 'I'm not sure exactly what it means, but it's meant to be very good, so it might be better than marriage.'

'Can you have both?'

'Well, I suppose so, but salvation is still probably the better of the two.'

'The better of the two,' repeated Susannah. 'Very good, Guy. Very good.' 'OK,' he said. He now remembered what he had come in for. 'Can I have another caramel?'

Something not very many people realize is that when reading fiction, you must talk to the book and ask questions. The same is true to a lesser extent with non-fiction. Normally the questions that result from non-fiction reading are of a very limited scope--either questioning the veracity of what one is reading, or looking for clarification of one or more points.

However, in reading fiction especially well-constructed, thoroughly considered fiction, there are a myriad of questions to ask, and answers to be had. What exactly is the author about. Why these words at this time in the mouth of this character? What exactly is her message regarding marriage and salvation? What does this mean for Susannah and Nicola (the other person in the room during this conversation)?

Fiction gets at the same truths as fact in a way that is very much different in technique and intensity. Fiction often slips in under the radar and we often toss it off as if nothing at all. But it is in a close look at fiction that we begin to uncover what is really going on.

It is because we have gotten lazy in our habits of reading that a trifle like The DaVinci Code stands to do as much harm as it may. People accept fiction uncritically as fact--and it helps that in the particular case the author is interested in making money and holds up his poorly executed research as fact. (A glance at any of his other published work will show that it is a worm and error-riddled as the work in question.) We think that because it is something for leisurely reading, fiction has no real effect.

The fact is, all of our choices have an effect. We can read light fiction and derive from it both pleasure and some insight, or be blindsided by it and find ourselves thinking through things we thought we had already considered. Every choice matters and is important. Thus reading critically is an important skill to cultivate, and it is not a skill that very many have. Many have not yet learned to converse with the work. They pop them into their brains like so many bon-bons and then it's on to the next work without much consideration of what one has just read. Most light works don't require much. Perhaps a review for the edification of others is sufficient to draw out all that can be gained from engaging such work. But some need extended conversation. We need to hone our critical faculties to determine which is which. Which work is substantive and worthwhile, and which merely a passing jeu.

Of the books before me now, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that The Collar is an interesting non-fiction read. It's substance is yet to be determined as I am only about half-way through, but it does raise some interesting questions. His Majesty's Dragon is a bon-bon, a froth, a zephyr on an otherwise overly warm day, and it appears that Ms. St. John's book shall be one that requires some extended consideration. She appears to be writing in the themes of Graham Greene and others, but in a more modern setting and mode. She is the companion along the way to the recently departed Muriel Spark, and to other such writers. I don't know if the work will hold the weight of much critical review and questioning, but until one starts to ask, it will be impossible to tell.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 23, 2006 1:47 PM.

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