Interpreting Texts: Two Paths


There are two paths to reading text. One loops back on itself and leads nowhere new: this is the path of reading a text for how it makes one feel without bothering to understand what the author originally meant. This method of reading gives the reader nothing new beyond a reflection of his or her own mind. C.S. Lewis describes this kind of reading in An Experiment in Criticism as looking at a work of art covered in glass and only looking at one’s own reflection in the mirror without looking through the glass to see the work of art. This method is, metaphorically, a mirror.

The second path is like traveling on a highway to a major city one has never been to before: it brings the reader to what should be an exciting place teeming with new things. Instead of a mirror this method is a microscope or telescope that one looks through. One is able to see through the lens of the author’s eyes. This method allows the reader to see through “myriad eyes” as C.S. Lewis put it: one is able to see through the eyes of all of the thousands of authors whose works one reads without losing one’s own identity. This can greatly expand one’s knowledge and, even more, the horizons of one’s thought: what one is capable of thinking about. A middle-aged white Christian man, for instance, might through a shared language and shared humanity the partake of the world and viewpoint of Plato and Aristotle although they lived thousands of years ago, Jane Austen’s although she was a woman, Booker T. Washington although he was a former African slave, and Karl Marx although that philosopher opposed religion as the “opiate of the masses.” This method, very importantly, allows one to move beyond one’s own race, time, place, political views, and opinions.

Subjectivity goes hand in hand with the first method: all views are relative to each other and morality is not definite. Ten men, with this method, may get ten different meanings out of a text. How the story makes them feel and what it means to them becomes the primary focus rather than what the author really says or whether or not what the author says is true.  The philosophic answer to this viewpoint is simple: the fact that there are dozens of wrong solutions, even an infinite number, to the mathematical equation “2+2=_____” does not change the startling and immutable fact of the one correct answer.

Objectivity goes hand in hand with the second method: the author expresses a definite meaning or viewpoint and the job of the reader is figure out what the author meant. This method is more difficult and often involves other forms of criticism, especially textual and historical criticism. Textual criticism involves looking at manuscripts (hand written) and published (typed) copies of an author’s writings to establish the exact words that he or she actually wrote. Along with this is the discovery of what words actually meant at the time the work was written, the meanings of words may change drastically over time. Historical criticism involves studying the historical background of the work being written and its author to establish the background which will help the reader understand what the author meant in the light of what was happening around him or her and in his or her own life.

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