Imagine, Envision, Interpret! For Your Own Sake!

*My* Captain Ahab always looked like Abe Lincoln. I can’t say why…

When I was still in grade school I spent about as much time reading and breaking down works of fiction as I did forcing myself to learn algebra or collecting bugs for my natural science lessons, and I think that did me a lot of good. We were encouraged to examine characters’ motives and what I would later learn was called subtext, and our interpretations were rarely called wrong. It was a strangely egalitarian, individualistic way of teaching literature and I attribute my continued love of reading in part to it.

It wasn’t until I started middle school that I discovered that very few people in Southern Mississippi are taught literature in this way, or that early. Many new friends I made had never read Moby Dick, or The Count of Monte Cristo, or any of the other old people books I’d grown up reading and picking apart every summer. More surprisingly, what they did read in class was not so much up for discussion as it was pre-packaged with the interpretations from the instructor’s copy of the textbook. It seemed like a very boring way to learn about a book. Or anything, really.

Years later, I find myself wondering if our capacity for interpretation and imagination is slowly being smothered out of us. There is a much greater emphasis now on being ‘right’ for the sake of filling in the proper bubbles on standardized tests, as well as an astounding amount of time devoted to the preparations for these tests. There is little room for interpretation or discussion and, increasingly, little room for reading at all.

Of course, in young adults’ spare time, on the internet, imagination and interpretation are alive and well. I discovered this not long after I discovered that literary interpretation did not happen in regular schools. While trying, trying, trying to force my thirteen year old self to enjoy Harry Potter. Perhaps, thought I, the answer could be found through online discussion. Perhaps I would enjoy the book better if I could find a list of why so many other kids liked it.

My God, the things I discovered.  The fixation, and the obsession, and above all the lengthy and varied discussions all over what at that time amounted to two children’s books, one of which hadn’t even been released in the U.S. yet. Friends I had known now for a couple of years, who had grown up either ignoring or being told to ignore the possibility of interpretation, discussed the books just as excitedly. And their interpretations were just as varied, just as individual.

In spite of my efforts, I never got into Harry Potter as a kid. Even though I could recognize that they were good books, for whatever reason they didn’t speak to me in the same way they spoke to seemingly every other kid I knew. However, even though I’ve yet to learn to love the books, I am forever grateful to Joanne Rowling for creating them and sending them out into the world to awaken the imaginations of minds the school system has too little time and too little money to do much with.

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