What Reading Stories Reveals About Our Identities


Contentment is found in a good book. When more abound, then contentment becomes bliss.
Contentment is found in a good book. When more abound, then contentment becomes bliss.
The kind of bear I approve of.
The kind of bear I approve of.

More than Just Words

I habitually encounter in myself my own lack of understanding when it comes to other people. Even people that are supposedly like me completely baffle me at times. For that matter, there are always those moments where an event happens and I find myself reacting in a way completely unlike what I thought I would be. Sitting in a class studying African American literature, we were discussing the story Drenched in Light by Zora Neale Hurston. At one point in the story, near the end, if I recall, a white woman stands on and watches admiringly as a black girl dances, showering the world with her still innocent, child’s joy. The way the story portrayed her, I couldn’t escape the impression that here was a woman who struggled with depression and was looking into a living reminder that joy could still be found in the world. Being someone who finds living easier to do in the pages of a story, this story spelled out to me the very human desire to find joy amid suffering.

Making some statement of this kind, I remember the bitter laugh that came from a man. He was black, but it was the bitterness of his laugh that defined him to me. A human story? This wasn’t a human story. Not to him. I don’t recall his counter on what the story truly was. I think, having been overly sensitive (and a little annoyed) at the time, I can only recall the frustration in his voice as he explained that this wasn’t a story about humanity. This was a story about race. About a women of privilege taking advantage of someone who will grow up to struggle in ways that the depressed woman will never understand. That was my impression of his sentiments.

I don’t remember much else about that class besides the information. No other incident from that class really stood out. Yet I think that day has helped shape the thought that the way we read literature can tell us more about who we are and the experiences we’ve had. Although I’ve never been able to talk to that man, I’ve often pondered over his response, wondering what experiences he had that made him respond in that way. I know my own experience with depression and longing for peace to exist between all kinds of people regardless of denomination played some part in the way I read the text. In the woman, I saw myself and my longing to see joy again. I saw a human story.

But what about his experience? Society can be especially good at making people feel as though they are less than human. In the romantic novels by Charlaine Harris, one reading of the vampires struggling for legitimacy in society is that it’s really about the LGBT community and their struggle to be treated as human. Through experiencing inhumane treatment, becoming human in society becomes a chief goal to be obtained. For this man, was his denial of my reading of it as a human story the result of years of being treated inhuman by the society he grew up in? Just what kind of experiences did he have that made him see that story in the way that he did? I don’t know.

In a class on world literature I took a few years later, I saw again how literature reveals experiences and shapes a person’s reading of a text. We were reading Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. At some point, the instructor told us how the author felt as though she wanted people to be moved by her literature, yet thus far had not obtained her objective. After having finished this very intense, depressing (yet geniously written) book, I remember the response of a girl who sat in the back, body tilted forward, voice mournful. “I know that she wants me to be moved,” she said and her hand gestured up helplessly. “But where I’m from, my community experiences a lot of these same problems too.”

Later, I tried to explain her reaction to some friends. Unfortunately, I tend to be a bit out of my element in the speaking realm. The written word is slower and you have more time to craft the nuances of a moment. I still remember my frustration at being unable to communicate what I had learned from her. Simply, that she was suffering too. That while she might be white and miss some of the negative treatment society attaches to skin color, her life still didn’t resonate with the kind of “white privilege” discussed by middle class Peggy McIntosh. If reading the Bluest Eye was intended as a call to action, the way it was read by her made her see her own helplessness with her own community, her own lack of control. How could she reach out when her own world wasn’t fixed?

For some people, books are a waste of time, but I’m convinced reading literature can tell us about who we are and make us see the commonplace, invisible ways we have become defined from others. I remember my frustration with preparing for the AP English test over a certain question about a story. The question dealt with which sign showed the character’s true remorse or sorrow. Crying was listed as one of the options, but I marked down some other answer that seemed more indicative of her sorrow. When I learned it was wrong, I remember saying that crying seemed fake to me. No real sorrow came from tears. Several other students in the class agreed with me. That was when my teacher, a very smart man, announced that he thought they would have to change the tests around soon because this was how my generation read what sorrow meant. That was the moment that made me wonder about the validity of being told what a text is meant to say.

In a philosophy of literature course, I one school of thought says that when you read a text, no other reading matters but your own. It’s just you and the text. In whichever way the author intended the text to be read, no matter how teachers have said it should be read, whatever other extemporaneous detail that comes outside the text and isn’t you, it is ultimately your reading of the text that matters. This kind of reading is known as reader response theory. Other theories exist about how literature is meant to be read. Yet it is this one theory, I think, that helps to understand these kinds of moments when pages are opened and stories are read.

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Comments 11 comments

izettl profile image

izettl 6 years ago from The Great Northwest

you are incredibly introspective.Honestly I would have viewed the book scenarios same as you. I was in an English class in college that compared the classics. Sometimes my view of the book did not match what should have bee interpreted, but that's exactly the beauty of the books. This was really well written by the way.

Elefanza profile image

Elefanza 6 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain Author

Thanks! I was an English major in college and I'm still not sure why some works were "meant to be interpreted" a certain way. I was fortunate to have many profs that encouraged us to think for ourselves about a text to see what it was saying. It's one of the experiences I miss the most. Glad you enjoyed!

izettl profile image

izettl 6 years ago from The Great Northwest

I alos loved dissecting and interpreting a good novel. I would have loved to major in English, but somehow I went for psychology which turned out good because instead of analyzing books, I could analyze people and case studies about them. I liked the mix of hard science and subjective input. Professors can really make or break a class- I had some good and some bad.

Elefanza profile image

Elefanza 6 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain Author

Dissecting literature is amazing! I took this textual analysis class and some of the analyses I found myself writing just blew me away because of how it changed the way I thought. Loved the one psychology class I took, but abstained from taking more because I am bad at math and science. So true about profs. This one prof I had was actually so bad that some students talked to the dean about him and got him removed. He used to talk about his drug experiences in his youth at 8 a.m.-- not the kind of thing you sign up to pay several thousands of dollars for.

izettl profile image

izettl 6 years ago from The Great Northwest

I went to school for psych, but almost dropped out or changed majors after my first college psych class because the professor was so bad. Glad I hung in there because I had some great ones later on in my education.

Psychology and English both require a lot of interpretation and analysis. Reading case studies in psychology are like reading a book and analyzing it,etc so they actually have a lot in common.

I wasn't good at math either and I failed an Algebra class twice, but ironically the horrible teacher I had ended up approving me to skip that class after I completed all of my degree except that course. I managed to get myself into two other upper level math courses and passed them with A's so obviously I didn't need the Algebra class to move on. It was an example of a bad teacher- I later found out that he usually failed between 75-80% of his students. When I got his approval for skipping the Algebra class to get my degree, his current position was president of the math department.He did not deserve that position.

Elefanza profile image

Elefanza 6 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain Author

Wow. You did well in higher level math classes? That gives me hope that not all math is completely impossible. That's too bad about the bad teacher. Sadly, that story still seems far too common.

M. T. Dremer profile image

M. T. Dremer 5 years ago from United States

Very well written article. Our interpretation of stories definitely reveals things about us. For example, I'm a fan of Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series. When I was younger I read it as an epic fantasy that was thoroughly engaging, but nothing more than that. As I read them now, all I can see are the underlying political messages. I still enjoy the story, but now that I'm older and more interested in politics, I'm seeing them more prominently in everything I read. It's kind of sad because politics, for the most part, suck and I don't want to ruin my favorite fantasy series because of it, but like you said, you read a book a certain way because of what you've experienced. What I've been through in the last five or so years has changed how I read books. In some ways for the better, in others for the worse. Great topic!

Elefanza profile image

Elefanza 5 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain Author

Thanks for the comment, M.T. Dremer!

I've read books one through three of Terry Goodkinds story. I'm not as much a fun of his fourth book. Maybe someday, I'll get back into the series. But you're definitely right about the political underpinnings of the story. I'm not as much a fan of stories that try to tell me what is "right" and what is "wrong." Good authors present a story from all kinds of sides and depths and give me good tools to think about life more deeply. The topic of how we read lit. is a deep, interesting topic indeed!

Niranjan 24 months ago

I'v gotten waxes down there myelsf a few times,and let me just say-its not that bad.The first couple of times,its HORRIBLE.But the more you get it,the less it hurts,and the more comfortable you are with a complete stranger seeing your bizz XP

Rifaldy 24 months ago

I also had a wax treatment, but with my eoybrews. It was painful at first, but after a few minutes I could finally handle it. It was definitely worth it and I might try it again later! I love all your comics and I look forward to reading another.

Wanita 24 months ago

Nohtnig I could say would give you undue credit for this story.

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