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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Secret Messages in Books . . .

The other day I was having a discussion with another writer about this little up-and-coming series of novels for kids about a boy wizard who saves the world. It's called, Harry Potter, or something like that. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry, it’s not that well known. I'd put a link up to the book but copies are nearly impossible to find.

Anyway, she – the writer I was speaking to – explained that she didn't like the books, and began expressing concern about some the things JK Rowling put into her book.  In particular, she said she had the most difficulty reading the parts where incest and sexual abuse were discussed.

As someone who has read the books, and who remembers them well, I was surprised. 

“No, madam,” I said, “you have your books confused. There are no such references in Harry Potter. Perhaps there is another, far more edgy children’s book you’re thinking of.”

She stared talking about some of the wizards and their obsession with “pure bloods” in the series, and the implications of those obsessions. Then she talked about Centaurs and Professor Umbridge and how she was . . . you know what, here’s a link to an article (BUT a quick *WARNING*: the article does have some language that might be offensive to some readers...) where the top five depraved themes in Harry Potter are discussed. There are arguments to be made for such things. Perhaps JKR even wrote them into her books on purpose.

But the fact that this other writer had picked up on them, and I hadn’t, got me thinking about messages and themes in books, and how they can exist and not exist in the same instance. They existed for one reader, and they didn’t for me. 

"Ah," you say, "that means one of you was smarter than the other. One of you is right while the other wrong. You can't both be right, Steve. JK Rowling meant it, or she didn't. Stop trying to justify your ignorance!"

Well, let's think about that. What about JK Rowlings intent? Is that relevant? I think it's only relevant if that is what the reader picked up on.

See, I’ve always read books and imagined I was sitting on a couch across from the author while they told me their story. In that way, it’s a bit like a conversation. I listen, and what I hear is just that, it’s what I hear. Sometimes you might get something out of a book that someone else doesn’t get, sometimes you might get something that even the author hadn’t intended.
The point is, neither is more relevant than the other. The conversation you had was different than the conversation I had. That’s all.

“C’mon, Steve,” you say, “either the author meant it or not. If they did, it’s relevant, if not, it’s irrelevant.”

Fair enough. But let me ask you this, if you were to make a comment on someone’s clothing, and you meant it as a compliment but they took it as an insult, and were offended, are their feelings any less relevant because you hadn’t intended the offense?

I think the fact that books can say something to one person and something else to someone else is brilliant. I especially think such things are relevant in Children’s books where an adult, generally, is doing the talking, but the experiences of the children are coloring how they’re receiving that information.

As I back slowly from the room, allow me to leave you with three famous quotes:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.   Twain, Mark

Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.    Ralph Ellison

"This happens often, and in every case there is good reason for the inference; in many cases, I have been able to learn something about my own book, for readers have seen much in the book that is there, although I was not aware of it being there."  Joseph Heller


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