Summer Reading: To Understand a Story

Jun 10, 2016

If reading for school is like embarking on a voyage of discovery, requiring maps and provisions, steely-jawed resolve and a dash of desperation—then reading for summer is like setting forth on an Arthurian quest: prize or peril’s rife around each corner, but a holiday spirit persistently present. I’ve made four stacks of books, not-so-neatly sorted, and I pull from whichever suits my fancy of the moment. 

This little sentence came from a book in my “serious” stack, Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, and it proved a stimulating outcrop for contemplation along the way:

To understand the story is to understand how and why the successive episodes led to this conclusion, which, far from being foreseeable, must finally be acceptable, as congruent with the episodes brought together by the story.

This strikes me as a potentially constructive framework for engaging literature, whether on my own or while structuring class discussions. It would go something like this:

  1. What episodes can the story be separated into? (To answer this, we must be able to articulate the story’s parts, a necessary prerequisite to understanding its whole.)
  2. How does one episode lead to the next, all the way to the conclusion? (Here we must recount the story’s chronology, the first step towards seeing its wholeness.) 
  3. Why does the story take these turns and not other ones? (This question invites us to explore the story’s logic, which is to say, the rules of the imagined reality it creates.)
  4. To what extent was the conclusion predictable? (The less predictable, the better the story.)
  5. To what extent is the conclusion acceptable? On what grounds do I accept it, or not? (In this final step, we judge how well the story’s reality corresponds to our own, activating literature’s power to evaluate our reality and see new possibilities in it.)

I’ll have to wait till August to test this in the classroom, but I suspect it might stimulate some lively conversation, even debate. 

Lindsey Brigham Knott

Lindsey Brigham Knott

Lindsey Knott relishes the chance to learn literature, composition, rhetoric, and logic alongside her students at a classical school in her North Florida hometown. She and her husband Alex keep a home filled with books, instruments, and good company.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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