One of the many challenges in reading any form of literature is the ability of the reader to interpret the text in parts or as a whole according to the writer’s intentions or motives. In some instances, the writer uses unfamiliar vocabularies, metaphors, aphorisms, or just by mere intricate sentence structures that complicate the supposedly easy comprehension of thoughts and ideas brought about by the characters and the writer. With the intricate details contained in the text, the reader is then required to take series of readings to fully grasp the whole picture or understand the message of the writers.
However, there are certain cases of misinterpretation of text when the reader only intends to touch the surface of the textual reading. They ignore and read superficially. So, how can the reader say that a successful reading is achieved? Is it measured by the effects it imposes on the life of the reader, or the wisdom it partakes to the reader?
All these and more are discussed by Brock Clarke in his latest book, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. Clarke roasts the literary world through intriguing and hilarious character commentaries on the subjects of writing, reading and interpretation, societal involvement such as book clubs, writer’s historical background involving their homes and personal stuffs, purpose of reader’s guides, literary critics as well as professors, and almost anything anyone can associate about the subject of writing.
The main character in the novel is Sam Pulsifer, an 18-year old unintentional arsonist and murderer, but most of all, a bumbler (Clarke 4 ). After accidentally burning down the house of the poet Emily Dickinson, another journey in his life outside prison cell begins. He is confronted by his past, the memory of his father, and the lies he has to stand up for his family.
But, the argument of this analysis lies whether Sam is successful in reading and interpreting the books that he reads or is he reading and interpreting the text incorrectly. To start of with his misunderstanding of the importance of reading, how can Sam read and understand the text correctly when he can not even perceive the significance of visiting writers’ homes? Instead, he finds the reasons behind the visit to the homes indeterminate, wonders what is there to find in writer’s homes that he cannot grasp in their writings, and what relationship can be derived between the writer’s stuff at home and their words. For him, what is the sense of visiting writers’ homes when the key to understanding them is right there in their writings? Yet, the answer lies in the significance of historicity.
By historicity, we mean the relationship of the writer’s work to its past – the background of the writer’s family, the writer’s personal things, and the events in the society when it was written. They manage to help in the understanding of any writing because it gives the readers an idea as to how writers live during their time that influenced their manner and themes in writing.
Second reason why Sam’s reading is not successful is his statement, “maybe, I thought, by reading these other stories, I could understand something about my own. It didn’t work out. These things never do” (Clarke 11). As a reader, he puts high hope that through reading other stories, he eventually would understand his own life’s story, which is not always the case in real interpretation. Stories should be taken as imaginings of the mind. They are guides, but not answers to life’s mysteries.
Another reason, he assumes that reading is his mom’s way of diverting his attention away from his father, “For instance, my mother, during my father’s absence, gave me the stories about the Emily Dickinson House so that I’d have something besides a runaway father” (Clarke 38). With such statements, Sam is mistaken here for his perceptions of the value of reading. He just sees reading as a form of diversion to the reality of his own life.
Also, he reads because, “if they’re reading and loving the book, then we need to read and love it, too” (Clarke 168). He finds the need to read books because of what other people can get from it and not by what he thinks he can get from it with his own interpretation.
Sam also thinks of reading as a way to pass the time for other people, “maybe because he couldn’t get any work, he had so much time to kill, and reading helped him do that. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he liked to read” (Clarke 207). On the other hand, Sam even believes that “maybe this lack of reading will help them the way all my reading and my mother’s reading didn’t exactly help us” (Clarke 293). This interpretation is rather absurd.
Sam confronts his mom about the importance of reading, “Why did you tell me those stories then? And why did you make me read if the reading wasn’t supposed to make me happy?” (Clarke 78). By this, Sam looks at reading as something that would always make him or any reader happy. And when his mom can not give him the answers, he again says, “but mostly she doesn’t seem to know what to say about books. Maybe that’s why she’s started reading books in general again , so that she’ll know what to say about mine” (Clarke 302). Sam is jaded about the truth that one does not only read to be happy, but rather to learn and find guidance to life’s problems.
Aside from the misguided look at reading, the book is also confronted with the problem of identifying humans or real persons from fictional characters. However, there are instances where characters in the story are derived from real persons, which may be unintentional or intentional at times. Some writers take some of the personalities of their characters from real persons, put it all together in one character and make it fictive, but of course some are authentic imaginations of the mind.
But each one of us has a similar character in every story that is something readers should understand wisely. And sometimes, characters are pure recollections of real people. Yet, the primary difference of being human to being only a character in the story is, “The ability to empathize with the people we hate – is exactly the quality that makes us human beings” (Clarke 283).
Sam may have been mistaken to blame his crime for the stories that have been read in his life. Anyhow, the novel frees itself from the thwarted image of its characters by giving a beautiful insight about the significance of reading and the value of books. Sam finally realizes the importance of books during the course of his trial – that books could manifest a “direct effect” (Clarke 75) and impart a strong message to its readers, of how it makes the reader understand “human condition” (Clarke 85) and the lessons or guidance in life that are shared within the stories. Not to forget that books are also fun to read. And all of these reaped reflections for Sam.
You read not because other people read, but rather you have interest in the reading itself, whatever the effect may be to you as a reader. You read not because you are lonely or want to get busy, you read because you want to learn more about how life works for most of us. In this case, literature becomes both a manifestation of our suffering and our hunger for redemption.
The novel makes it a point to criticize every topic related to writing and reading stories. But, at the same time, it shares us lessons why writers write them, why readers read them, and make the best or even worst of what we can get from this story. The novel teaches us also as to how we should read stories beyond what they initially seem to be and to also look at people beyond the bad things they have done. Clarke’s novel may be sarcastic and preachy at times with regard to literature and its purpose in life, but readers should remember that it is definitely a great feat if each one of us learns something from everybody.
Clarke, Brock. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England: A Novel. North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 2007.