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Does “Analysis” Destroy the Love of Reading?

Many people claim that literary analysis ruins reading - but that perspective reveals a misunderstanding of the term "analysis"

By my latest count, I have heard the following dictum at least a dozen times in the last month: “literary analysis destroys the love of reading.”

Parents and teachers who say this often assert that reading, especially among the very young, is primarily an experience of the heart and soul, to be shared between parents and children, and that too strong an emphasis on mental exercise prevents them from using story time to build deep relationships.

I can imagine the kind of reading these folks have in mind, stripped of all the activities that go by the name “analysis.” It presents a wonderful picture. The comfortable sights, smells, and sounds of a mother’s kitchen combine with the soft cooing of her voice as she reads; beautiful illustrations leap off the page and delight the eyes; a crackling fireplace and a soft couch create an atmosphere of togetherness and belonging that pervades the house. No sane parent would prefer a cold schoolroom to such an idyllic setting, and no child could fail to love it.

To be clear, however, this isn’t reading. This is an experience occasioned by reading that could frankly have been occasioned just as well by singing, or praying, or whittling. A parent who notices that a child enjoys himself in this situation and calls this joy “the love of reading” speaks imprecisely at best. At worst, she runs a great risk, for in opposing any mental exercise that interrupts this so-called “love of reading,” she prevents her children from learning to love reading at all.

Analysis is not a synonym for dissection; it’s a synonym for examination

She is not doing this on purpose, of course; she is simply suspicious of the term “analysis.” Most of us are, and for the good reason that we think of the term as a synonym for “dissection.” We think of literary analysis as a scientific cutting up of a story like a specimen, picking it apart to uncover its meaning. This process, we imagine, ignores the artistic, emotional, and affective aspects of the piece; it ignores the effects of the story in the lives of readers, the social implications of reading it, and the human element of literature generally.

But analysis is not a synonym for dissection; it’s a synonym for examination. It means nothing more than looking closely at what we read to understand it clearly. “Literary analysis,” by this definition, means “the careful reading of a story.” How can reading carefully possibly destroy the love of reading?

No one would argue that phonics destroys the love of reading. Phonics is a set of skills that make good reading possible – a prerequisite to good reading, you might say. Do the skills necessary for good reading end with phonics, though? Surely there is more to good reading than decoding the language. What about comprehension? Surely no one would argue that comprehension destroys the love of reading, either. Is this not because comprehension, just like phonics, is a set of skills that make good reading possible? Comprehending what we read is a prerequisite to enjoying it. You can’t be said to be reading at all, much less loving what you read, unless you understand it at some level.

But are there different kinds of reading comprehension? Is comprehending a recipe, for example, the same thing as comprehending a fairy tale? Can you understand a fairy tale simply by adding up the literal denotations of all its words, or does literary reading require a special, extra-literal kind of comprehension?

In the children’s classic Owl Moon, author Jane Yolen doesn’t actually say that her protagonist longs to join the fraternity of siblings that have been on successful owling trips. This yearning is his greatest hope, and the chance that he might fail presents the driving conflict of the story. To understand this, however, you must piece it together from clues. There’s an anxious tone in his voice when he says, “I wasn’t worried. My brothers say, ‘Sometimes there’s an owl, and sometimes there isn’t.’” He lets drop on page one that he has been waiting to go owling with his Pa “for a long, long time.” The condescending advice he delivers to would-be owlers at the story’s end rings with newfound maturity, despite its appearing beside a watercolor image of Pa carrying him home.

None of these clues amounts to a literal statement of the story’s conflict; no combination of phonics and recipe-style comprehension could make it clear. However, if the reader is familiar with the idea of conflict as a literary device and knows how to ask questions like, “What does the protagonist want, and why can’t he have it?”, this extra-literal material provides an answer: the protagonist seeks an identity, for which he depends on forces beyond his control, and is comforted to find that those forces smile upon him in the end.

This is literary reading, what doubters call “analysis.” If learning to read like this destroys the love of reading, you might as well say that learning to play chess destroys the love of chess.

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