Why Context? What You Know Changes How You Read

bookshelves-in-office-2012-smDuring summer break (something I don’t seem to be getting this year), I sometimes venture into the dark recesses of my bookshelves in search of a good old book. I have a sizable collection of fiction written between 1850 – 1950 from childhood thrift-shopping trips with my grandmother. Some of these books are great classics, but others are simply popular fiction of the time.

These old books formed the bulk of my reading when I was young, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. As I read them now, however, I realize that most modern readers have little context for the mindset, manners, and morals, or even many of the conflicts that consumed the characters in the novels of the late 19th and early 20th century. This lack of context can affect understanding of and appreciation for these stories.

Two small examples of how context affects understanding

One of the books I found on my shelves recently was a typical cozy mystery, and the main character, Miss Silver, is a Miss Marple-like older lady who knits while making sharp observations of those around her. I can picture her as I read, because I remember a pair of similar-appearing older ladies from my childhood. If I didn’t have that context, though, the character would simply seem unreal, making the story unbelievable.

The second book presented a scenario I initially found ludicrous – a cruel husband banishes his wife, and she is forced to take refuge in another man’s house. She is so mortified by this that she spends most of the rest of her life in a convent.

While this was probably an early version of a Harlequin-type romance, readers of the time probably had enough context to empathize with the character. I’m afraid I just couldn’t get into it. Sometimes “light reading” is too light to be worth the time and effort it takes to see into and through the cultural changes.

I find it interesting that truly great literature — Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare’s plays, for example — don’t seem to suffer quite as much from a contextual shift. Chaucer’s Pardoner stands, century after century, as one of the most odious religious charlatans ever encountered, and Shakespeare’s Lear inspires a gamut of emotions, from outrage to pity, as he wends his way across the page. And is there any heart too hard to be moved by Jean Valjean in Les Miserables?

Great literature is challenging, but worth it. It is great because although costumes and accents may change, the deepest human emotions are evoked in a way that rings true across centuries. Lighter fare – twinkies for the brain – nourishes the soul about as well as junk food does the body. An occasional snack won’t kill you, but a steady diet of fluff will rot the mind.

Here are some questions you can ask in order to learn more about the context of the story.

  1. What was the author’s life like?
  2. What political and social events were happening either in the book or during the author’s life?
  3. What art, music, and literature can shed light on the author and his or her work?

There are other questions you might ask, but those will get you started. Context will almost always help you understand wh

So what are you reading this summer? I’ve been making my way through Bleak House by Dickens (breaking my own rule about Dickens being best read during the long evenings of winter), and it’s very possible that I may need something very fluffy by the time it’s over!


Excellence in Literature for grades 8-12

Excellence in Literature teaches classic literature in historic and cultural context. www.ExcellenceInLiterature.com


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