As students in an English class, we have all learned the basics about literature. I would go as far as to say they are engraved in our mind. We cannot escape them. Literary terms and devices chase us down the street. Symbolism beats us, showing no mercy. To look at a piece of literature through this lens runs through our veins. It is almost impossible to read a book of choice – one purely for enjoyment purposes only – without contemplating the skills we’ve been honing since elementary school. It has become a habit, this art we are being trained in.
In each class, every day of the semester, the same thing happens: we discuss the reading from whatever book, poem, or article assigned the previous day. Most times, discussion is not grueling. We employ our knowledge of literature and being to pull apart the writing. However, there are those few times where the discussions takes a turn in a completely new direction. The speaker, almost always a fellow student, begins analyzing the material in a whole new, very deep and profound way. It’s so deep and so profound that I need to question whether or not this actually relates to what we read, and to ask: Is there really such a thing as over-reading a text?
I’m not a creative writing major. In fact, I have never taken a formal writing class here at Susquehanna. The only background I have in the area is a half-year course in high school, plus the writing we had to do in our typical English classes. But from my little experience as a writer, I find it hard to believe that authors can spend so much time and thought filling their work with limitless amounts of symbols and meaning. When I write, I do not sit there and ponder about the bigger picture and the meaning of all the little things I incorporate into a single story. My stories are plot driven. The characters are influenced by people I know and I form them to be the kind of character who can not only fit into the plot, but to do so very well. I want my characters to be realistic. I like figurative language and try to use it whenever I can. But there’s a point where I stop with my literary devices.
People write differently, that’s obvious. If they didn’t we wouldn’t have the variety of literature that we have today. While I don’t fill my work with symbols and such, other writers do. Maybe it’s those who have been educated in the field. Maybe it’s the people in another field, like religion or philosophy, who do. But there has to be some point where the meaning stops. A writer can only put so much into his writing.
This is a problem on the reader’s side. We’ve been told that as long as we find textual evidence to support our assertion no one can say that we are wrong. We are told it’s all about what we get out of the writing. The writer’s intent does not matter. But is this true? To some extent, a writer’s intent does matter, and scholars are now starting to shift back to considering it. What writers put into the work consciously is what you should get out of their writing. I’ll even go as far as to agree that they include some unintentional messages. But if the idea you find in the text is really obscure, then that is over-reading. Our interpretations have to be relevant to authors’ ideas, their point of view, politics, and other influences. Even if you find textual evidence, if your reading is out in left field do you really think that the writer actually sat there and worked that idea out? Odds are, the answer is no.
Take this into consideration tomorrow when you sit in one of your English classes. Keep this in mind when you’re reading. There is such a thing as over-reading, and to do so means you are pulling something out of the work that is not there or meant to be there.