A Catholic Reader

Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: rhetorical context

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.