The Beginning of Interpretation
In my time as an English major in college, one of the most exciting classes I ever attended involved a brief but fascinating introduction to literary interpretation – the art of discovering and discussing the meaning of a text from a reader’s point of view. In a single class period, the professor developed half a dozen completely different readings of the book we had just finished, each one based on a different set of beliefs. It was fascinating to see how one person could come up with wildly different understandings of the same text simply by looking at it from different perspectives.
The point of the lecture was that each interpretation was derived from a particular way of looking at the world and at human nature. In one short exercise, the professor showed us the essential truth of literary interpretation: How we read is who we are.
All readers filter what they read through their own world view, the set of beliefs a person holds about the nature of life as influenced by their personality and experience. Things that stand out for one reader may not register much for another. It is the elements of a story a reader finds most interesting that form the foundation of his or her interpretation.
Learning to interpret a text is not an easy task. But there is one way I can help you get started, a simple approach every reader can take regardless of age or ability. My favorite thing to do is to help readers explore their favorites, the things they like best about a particular book.
Focusing on the aspects of a book that seem most interesting to you, and trying to explain why these things are so important, provides the perfect starting point for discussions of theme and main idea, the key elements in every interpretation. Looking at your favorite part also helps you learn things about yourself and help you see that your opinions about a book are just as important anybody else’s – even those of the author!
Last year, I invited two classes of 5th graders, who had just finished “Holes” by Louis Sachar, to tell me what they liked best or thought was most important about the book. Specifically, I asked them “What do you dig about Holes?” Their responses were delightful, but more to the point, they revealed for me a bit of how each student read the book, what they cared about, and how those things might fit into their interpretation of what it was all about.
What Do You Dig About “Holes”?
“I dig the part when Zero told Stanley about his life as a little boy. His story was about his mom leaving him on a playground and never coming back. I felt sorry for Zero because I think he had to go through a rough situation.” — Christina
“I dig it when Stanley is at the wrong place at the wrong time because of the curse, so the curse seems bad. But without it Stanley would never have gone to Camp Green Lake, got in shape, met Zero, and found the treasure. What I’m trying to say is that bad things happen to people with or without a curse, but in Stanley’s case, the curse was a blessing.” — Michael
“I dig the idea of God helping Stanley and Zero survive after they leave Camp Green Lake. They find “sploosh” which keeps them alive. They see lightning which shows them how to get to God's Thumb. Once there, they find onions to eat and water to drink. I don't think they could have survived without God's help.” — Justin
“I dig when Zero dug Stanley's hole. That was very generous of him. Zero did that for Stanley because Stanley was teaching him how to read. That's what friends are for.” — Ben
“I dig Holes because it's about how believing in yourself can bring about great change. When Stanley is first sent to camp, he's a coward who has no faith in himself. At camp, he learns that he can do things on his own. He helps his peers and has enough faith to rescue his friend Zero. At the end he is self-confident. He has proven that when you believe in yourself, great things happen.” — Mrs. Johanson
When I ask kids to tell me about their favorite aspects of a book, I make sure to ask them why something is so important to them. I also ask them to reflect on this based on their life experience, their likes and dislikes, and the things that matter most to them in life. If you do it this way, you’ll find some interesting connections between who you are and how you read.