Interpretation: Analyzing What a Text Means
Repeating v. Analyzing: Making The LeapRightly or wrongly, much of any student's career is spent reading and restating texts. For many, the shift to description and interpretation is particularly hard. They are reluctant to trade the safety of repeating an author's remarks for responsibility fortheir ownassertions. They will freely infer the purpose of an action, the essence of a behavior, or the intent of a political decision. But they will hesitate to go beyond what they take a text to "say" on its own. They are afraid to take responsibility for their own understanding. Others are so attuned to accepting the written word that they fail to see the text as a viable topic of conversation.
Looking at the Mona Lisa, you know that you are not looking at Mona Lisa, a person, but The Mona Lisa, a painting. You can talk not only about the meaning of the picture, but also about how it was crafted. What is the significance of the dream landscape in the background? Why, when we focus on the left side of the picture, does the woman looks somehow taller or more erect than if we focus on the right side? The more features of the painting that you recognize, the more powerful your interpretation will be.
When reading texts, as when reading paintings, we increase understanding by recognizing the craftsmanship of the creation, the choices that the artist/author made to portray the topic a certain way. And yet there is still that feeling that texts are somehow different. Texts do differ from art insofar as they actually seem to come out and say something. There are assertions "in black and white" to fall back on. We can restate a text; we cannot restate a painting or action. Yet a text is simply symbols on a page. Readers bring to their reading recognition of those symbols, an understanding of what the words mean within the given social and historical context, and an understanding of the remarks within their own framework of what might make sense, or what they might imagine an author to have intended.
There is no escape; one way or another we are responsible for the meaning we find in our reading. When a text says that someone burned their textbooks, that is all that is there: an assertion that someone burned their textbooks. We can agree on how to interpret sentence structure enough to agree on what is stated in a literal sense. But any sense that that person committed an irresponsible, impulsive, or inspired act is in our own heads. It is not stated as such on the page (unless the author says so!). Stories present actions; readers infer personalities, motives, and intents. When we go beyond the words, we are reading meaning.
Readers infer as much, if not more, than they are told. Readers go beyond the literal meaning of the words to find significance and unstated meanings—and authors rely on their readers' ability to do so! The reader's eye may scan the page, but the reader's mind ranges up, down, and sideways, piecing together evidence to make sense of the presentation as a whole.
Additional ObservationsA number of observations should be made lest there be misunderstanding.
All Three Modes of Reading and Discussion Are LegitimateThe models are designed to identify varying levels of sophistication and insight in reading and discussion. While one approach may be more complex than another, no one way of reading a text is necessarily better than another. They are simply different, and involve different observations and reasoning. The key thing is to know which style of reading you want to do at any time, how to do it, and how to tell whether you are actually doing it successfully.
All Reading Involves More Than One Form of ReadingThe divisions between the three modes of reading are, to some extent, artificial. Dividing reading into reading what a text says, does, and means is somewhat like dividing bicycle riding into concern for balance, speed, and direction. They are all necessary and affect one another. Speed and direction both affect balance; we will fall off, or crash, without all three. And yet we may focus on one or another at any particular time. We can parse each out for analysis.
While the modes of reading and discussing texts can be separated out for purposes of discussion, and it is relatively easy to distinguish between the resulting forms of discussion, in practice these reading techniques overlap. Any particular text can, and will, be read at various levels of understanding at once. We cannot understand what a text says without recognizing relationships between sentences. We cannot even understand sentences without drawing inferences that extend beyond the words on the page. Observations and realizations at any one level of reading invariably support and spark observations at another. Observations characteristic of all three forms of response can be included in an interpretation.
Finally, while it is relatively easy
to distinguish between forms of discussion.—restatement, description, and
interpretation—a description might include restatement for the purposes of
illustration, and an interpretation may be supported with descriptions of
various portions of the
text and even restatement of key
points (see the example above). In the end, the "highest" level
of remark characterizes the discussion a whole.
Finally, we might note that book reports or reviews often contain additional elements, such as a feeling for the writing style, comparison to other works, the reviewer's emotional response to the reading experience, or the circumstances of publication. And book reviewers often use the book under reviews as a taking-off point for a discussion of the topic itself—all elements that go beyond, but depend on, a careful reading of the text in question. ·
Three Ways to Read and Discuss Texts