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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: nonfiction

Read any work with greater understanding

Owl reading a book

You’ll grow wiser as you read!

I thought I would offer here the following method of analyzing any serious work, which can be used by intelligent readers with no particular expertise in the subject matter of the work being read (I’ve also published this over on my Catholic Social Teaching blog). This is a method I developed for my Humanities students at the University of Southern Indiana, who were usually not accustomed to dealing with primary works and needed some guidance in developing good reading skills. This method is intended to be used for “non-fiction” works of all sorts, although it can (and has) been adapted for reading literary (poetic, fictional, or dramatic) works.

I will confess that this method (which the students found very helpful, not only in my class, but in upper level classes in their majors) is one I boiled down from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book (which I’ve referred to several times before). One way in which I’ve improved on Adler’s method (if I may say so) is to put “evaluation” last – with undergraduate students particularly, who seem to have remarkably few analytical skills, it was necessary to emphasize that an opinion must always be predicated on knowledge and understanding of the matter being opined, otherwise it is just prejudice (i.e., literally, judging before having knowledge or understanding).

Anyway, I offer this method to my readers, as it may be useful in reading all sorts of works in fields in which one is not particularly well-versed. If you use it consistently, over time you’ll find that you can read all sorts of serious works with greater ease and understanding. You’ll also find, as you read a broader range and more books, that you begin to hear a kind of ongoing conversation amongst the books of your acquaintance. As you’ll see, the absolute key to understanding any work is context-context-context!

Four-Question Analysis of Any Work of Non-Fiction

You’ll find as you go through this method that the keynote is “context.” No work is self-interpreting, neither should it be read simply against the background of the reader’s own experience or opinion. To learn from any work, one must be careful to read it by its own lights in order to understand what the author was trying to convey. Once this understanding has honestly been reached, one should see how the work has contributed to, or perhaps even diverted, the historical discussion of its subject matter. When this has been done – and only then – can the reader arrive at an intelligent evaluation of the work.

1. The Rhetorical Context: What is it about as a whole?

  • What kind of work is it?
  • What is the central thesis or claim? How does the author support his argument?
  • What kind of audience does the author seem to address?
  • What purpose is the author trying to achieve?

There is nothing more surely guaranteed to produce misunderstanding than  to fail to read a work in its proper context. This is true of everything from the Bible to the instruction manual for an appliance. Consider how disastrous it would be to read the Bible as if it were merely an instruction manual, like the one that comes with your toaster or hairdryer (undeniably, many people have tried to do so), and or to fail to notice that Jonathan Swift is being satirical when he suggested in “A Modest Proposal” that English overlords deal with the overpopulation of their Irish subjects by eating their babies as a delicacy.

2. The Argument of the Work: What is said in detail, and how?

  • What are the key terms and what is meant by them?
  • What are the author’s leading propositions?
  • What argument does the author present, and what are its components?
  • How do the different parts of the argument work together to support the leading propositions?
  • Does the author solve the problem he  addresses? If not, does he recognize or acknowledge that he has not solved it?

Understanding key terms is crucial to comprehending what the author is trying to say. Once again, context is important in understanding terminology correctly. Then again, it is important not simply to understand individual examples or claims, but to understand them in the context of the work as a whole – are they major claims, or do they support some proposition? Are they statements the author makes, or propositions he is refuting?

(In a fictional work, you should consider the theme of the story. What point is the author making about the way life is, or the way we should live? Do the choices and actions of his characters realistically support or illustrate that point?)

3. The Significance of the Work: The work in literary, historical, or cultural context

  • How does it relate, or respond, to other works?
  • How does it relate or respond to the cultural conditions in which it was produced?
  • How does this work reflect, change, or advance a particular understanding of human concerns?

No work stands completely on its own, nor does our attempt to understand it occur in a vacuum. Again, context is key to understanding the significance of the work. In this case, this means that we should consider how this work relates to others on the same, or similar, subject, how it changes or adds to what we already knew or what had already been said on the subject, or even how this work has changed the ongoing “discussion” represented by its particular literary tradition.

4. Evaluation of the Work: To what extent does the work express or illuminate Truth?

  • Would you say that the work is true, in whole or in part?
  • What specific valuable and true insights does the work provide?
  • To what extent does the author’s analysis or account seem incomplete?
  • In what ways does the author seem uninformed, misinformed, or illogical?

Intellectual honesty mitigates against crude dichotomies of right and wrong; a qualified appraisal is often more appropriate than an absolute approval or disapproval. A work which is mistaken or illogical in some regard may nonetheless offer insights worth gleaning. We shouldn’t disdain Aristotle’s ethical insights simply because he erroneously believe that frogs are spontaneously generated out of pond water, nor dismiss Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modern problems out of hand simply because his prescription for solving those problems seems so wrongheaded. Anyone who truly desires to grow in wisdom must restrain (and retrain) the impulse to rely on gut reactions or to give thumbs up/thumbs down evaluations of serious works.

So there it is. Try it, you’ll like it. And if you don’t, let me know why.

Current reading: mystery novels, history, literary criticism et cetera

I’ve been doing a lot of reading, not much writing lately. Here are some of the things I have read, am reading, or will shortly begin, some of which I will shortly be discussing in subsequent posts.


Thanks to a new Half Price Books nearby, I’ve been able to entertain myself reading inexpensive murder mysteries.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
  • Careless in Red, Elizabeth George. One of her Inspector Lynley mysteries which has not yet been turned into an episode of the television series by that name. [finished reading]
  • Last Act in Palmyra, Lindsey Davis. A Marcus Didius Falco mystery that takes place in the Decapolis during the reign of Roman emperor Vespasian (see earlier discussion of this Roman mystery series). [finished reading]
  • The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. The first in this charming series, whose detective-protagonist is Botswanan Precious Ramotswe and which has been turned into a movie and TV series on HBO. All of the plots for the first series of TV episodes were taken from this episodic novel, and the series largely captures the charm of the novel. [finished reading]
  • Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish, Dorothy Gilman. The second or third in the series, which finds Mrs. Pollifax evading a pre-9/11 Muslim terrorist ring in Morroco. [finished reading]
  • Picture Miss Seeton, Heron Carvic. The first in the Miss Seeton series, about an elderly English art instructor with a penchant for tangling with criminals and then providing clues to crimes through her intuitively/psychically-inspired drawings. The series was begun by Heron Carvic, who wrote 5 Miss Seeton mysteries before his death. The series was later continued by other writers using pseudonyms with the initials H and C (Hampton Charles, Hamilton Crane). I read 8 or ten of the beginning of the series many years ago, and am glad to re-discover Miss Seeton. [finished reading]

Other literature

  • Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. I fell in love with Ray Bradbury as a kid when I read a story of his in a reader at school, about the magic of a new pair of sneakers — a story, I found out later, that was taken from Dandelion Wine. This book really captures, for me, the beauty of Bradbury’s writing and his talent at capturing the richness and beauty of life. [Currently reading]
  • Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. I’ve not yet started this, so I’m not sure if it should go in the “mystery” category, along with Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. [Planning to read]
  • Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare. An Oxford school edition. I wanted to re-read this after reading John Carroll’s analysis of it in the first chapter of The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to re-read]
  • Hamlet, William Shakespeare. Oxford edition, with extensive material and discussion of the three extant versions of the play. Another one I wanted to re-read after reading the first chapter of Carroll’s The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to read]

Literary Criticism

  • An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis. While reading Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, I realized that I had never read this (although I’m pretty sure I’ve owned it), so I bought a new copy and got cracking. [finished reading]


  • Dynamics of World History, Christopher Dawson. A compilation of Dawson’s essays,  edited by John J. Mulloy. Organized to give a good overview of Dawson’s work as an historian. I’m reading it one essay at a time. [Currently reading]

Other non-fiction

  • Things That Count: Essays Moral and Theological, Gilbert Meilaender. A collection of essays in which Meilaender, an ethicist and theologian (Lutheran, I believe) “[mines] the great works of philosophy, literature, and political theory” for “insights into the human condition.” Until now, I know Meilaender only from his contributions to First Things, but I’m looking forward to reading these essays, and will probably comment on them one by one, as I read them. This is one of two books I chose as my free selections when I renewed my membership in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute‘s Reader’s Club (huge discounts on subsequent purchases during the next twelve months). [Currently reading]
  • The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll. My other free selection from ISI. To counter the prevalent view that the humanism that came in through the Renaissance is to be credited for all the wonders of modern life — individual liberty, modern democracy, prosperity, etc. — Carroll presents an alternative view, namely that  “the West’s five-hundred-year experiment with humanism has failed” and has destroyed culture in the western(ized) world. [Currently reading]
  • The Apocalypse–Letter by Letter: A Literary Analysis of the Book of Revelation, Steven Paul. This was lent me by a friend, who thought I would appreciate the linguistic precision with which the author analyzes the original Greek of the last book of the Bible (Apocalypse, a.k.a. Revelation). The author, dying of cancer, wrote this as a series of letters to his brother-in-law, who later compiled the letters into a book for publication. [Planning to read]

I have a feeling I’m leaving out one or two things, but that’s the gist of it. So many books, so little time!

Moral lessons from historical figures: Plutarch’s Lives

Plutarch's Live, Modern Library Edition

While I’ve got Rome on my mind, I’ve begun dipping into some of the biographies of ancient Romans (and Greeks) written by Plutarch, who is credited with being the author of the literary genre we know as “biography.” The most famous of these are Plutarch’s “parallel lives,” in which he pairs off a Greek and a Roman figure who share some significant biographical features (e.g., Demosthenes and Cicero were each renowned orators), describes the life of each, and then compares the points on which each should or should not be admired (Demosthenes was more mercenary than Cicero, but Cicero engaged in unseemly boasting about his own abilities and accomplishments).
The Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives (Penguin Classics)I’ve got two different editions of Plutarch on hand to choose from: one is the Penguin Classics’ Fall of the Roman Republic, a selection of Plutarch’s Roman biographies that highlights figures who played a key role in the collapse of the Roman Republic (Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cicero). This edition presents a modern translation by Rex Warner, with an introduction by Robin Seager. The other book is Volume II of the Modern Library edition of Plutarch’s Lives, some of which are paired and compared, while others are “solo.” This volume contains the (17th century) Dryden translation of the Lives, along with a 19th century Preface by Arthur Hugh Clough and an editorial introduction by American biographer, James Atlas.
Plutarch Fall of the Roman Republic, Penguin

Character matters …

Before I began reading any of the biographies themselves, I read the editorial introductions and the preface by Clough, and I noticed something that struck me as rather curious, namely the fact that modern scholars, although they acknowledge the importance of Plutarch’s work, seem to regard his method and purpose as quaint and even illegitimate. Plutarch himself made it plain that, in writing these biographies, his intention was to examine the character of the men whose lives he was writing rather than analyzing their historical importance (“My design is not to write Histories but Lives”):

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their character and inclinations than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in any other parts of the body, so I must be  allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men …

This purpose is characterized by James Atlas, with a note of indulgent condescension, as “moralizing,” as if it were rather peculiar, in considering the lives of historically important figures, to be interested chiefly in the moral quality of their character. Perhaps he is willing to allow Plutarch his moralizing because Atlas himself acknowledged in an interview shortly after the publication of his biography of Saul Bellow:

We want to know how people lived, we want instruction in what critics used to call “manners and morals.” Biography is our school, our church, our family, our community. It does the work the novel used to do: it educates us.

Robin Seager goes beyond questioning Plutarch’s “moralizing tendencies” — he blames Plutarch for failing to credit historical figures for their cleverness in political scheming. Take, for instance, his editorial note on Plutarch’s life of Gaius Marius; the historical record clearly shows Marius to have been a ruthless self-promoter with little regard for the rule of law and a nasty taste for bloody vengeance against his political rivals, but Seager seems to think that Plutarch takes too dim a view of these facts and fails to show “appreciation of the political skill with which Marius fostered and exploited equestrian and popular discontent in order to oust Metellus from the Numidian command.”

… unless you’re Macchiavellian

Livy and Sallust
Livy and Sallust, two unabashedly
“moralizing” Roman historians.

This view, to me, smacks of a modern, Machiavellian expectation that political figures should be judged for the crude efficacy, rather than the morality, of their actions, which is completely at odds with the view of classical writers. The historian Livy would have had few quibbles with Plutarch’s “moralizing,” as he himself said, in the preface to his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, that his purpose in writing was to provide examples of men and actions to imitate or to avoid — that is, he intended his history to provide moral instruction, and he thought his presentation would make it plain enough which actions had been destructive and which admirable. He says:

The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these – the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

In other words, in Livy’s view, a high moral standard produced social benefits, and declining morals brought about social ruin. He wrote, for the generation following the collapse of the Republic, to help people of his own day avoid repeating the disasters of the past and, in fact, his History reads like a series of moral vignettes. It has always struck me as quite inexplicable that Machiavelli, who was well-read in classical history and even wrote a famous commentary on Livy (his Discourses on Livy), seems not to have been influenced at all by the classical tendency to equate personal morality with the public good; in fact, in The Prince, he quite explicitly denies this equation, urging the prince to do what is expedient rather than what is ethical.

Perhaps, though, Robin Seager, in complaining that Plutarch fails to appreciate Marius’s political savvy, is not so much reflecting a Machiavellian preference for expediency over ethics as he is revealing his own preoccupation as a biographer — Seager has published two well-received political biographies of Roman figures whose lives were also treated by Plutarch: Pompey and Tiberius Caesar. At any rate, it certainly seems that modern biographers do not share Plutarch’s interest in “moralizing.” I, however, am looking forward to seeing what moral lessons Plutarch draws out in his Lives.

©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Current Reading: Arthur & Augustine

I’m currently working on (re) reading a couple of things that I have loved for a while.

First is T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I’m reading for the first time in many years, certainly since I began seriously studying the Arthurian literary tradition (in fact, wrote my doctoral dissertation on one of the earliest Arthurian romances, Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail). I loved White’s story of the boy Arthur as a kid, after reading (about 40 times) the “Golden Book” story based on the Disney movie, The Sword in the Stone, which itself was based on the first part of White’s novel. At age 13, I took part in a performance of the stage musical Camelot, based on the latter part of the novel, but I don’t think I made the connection. As an older teenager, I finally read all of T. H. White’s novel (“The Sword in the Stone” is just the first of four parts), and was rather dismayed at the tragic turn the story takes (at that point, I must have made the connection with Camelot). Well, I hadn’t read Malory or Tennyson, so it kind of took me by surprise.

Now that I’m familiar with the whole length of the literary tradition and, of course, “all grown up,” not only am I enjoying White’s novel even more than I did as a kid, but I find all sorts of oblique commentary on the Arthurian literary tradition and its effects on the popular imagination (something Chretien was already engaged in back in the 12th century!). I’m planning to (re)read some of the other major (“literary”) modern additions to the canon of Arthurian literature, too — Tennyson, maybe Steinbeck, and definitely Charles Williams’s Arthurian poems, with C. S. Lewis’s commentary. This is my idea of fun!

St Augustine City of God Doubleday abridged

The other book I’ve started recently is the Doubleday/Image edition of St. Augustine’s City of God. This is an abridged version of the Fathers of the Church translation, cutting out most of Augustine’s digressions, with an even more abridged version of Etienne Gilson’s foreward to the original edition of that translation. I picked this copy up cheap second-hand because my Penguin edition of the complete City of God is, alas, like most of my books, in storage and inaccessible. I will definitely go back at some point and read the chapters that the Image abridgement leaves out. I’ll be commenting on Gilson’s foreward, as well as Augustine’s tome, book by book. I’ve read (and taught) portions of City of God in the past, but that took some of his major ideas out of the context of his larger argument, so I’m interested in putting the familar bits back into their proper context. This will be my first go at reading the whole argument, so I’m actually glad — for the nonce — to be able to skip over the digressions. I’ll note the “skipped” parts as I get to them.

I’m glad to be reading something Arthurian and modern alongside something theological and ancient, particularly something by Augustine of Hippo, who I think had a greater influence on the beginning of the Arthurian literary tradition than most modern critics recognize or admit. We’ll see if the juxtaposition provokes any interesting, new ideas.