Reading Wrong


Image via Lorena Garcia at bosquedetrazos

I do not know how to read books. Well, I don’t know how to read poetry either, but maybe that’s a discussion for another time. This may seem like an odd statement of fact, but it is, quite unfortunately, very true. I didn’t realize that I was reading books “wrong” until I was given an assignment in my Junior year of high school to read “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I can remember it like it was yesterday, despite my insistence on repressing most of my high school experience. It was late at night back when late at night meant, say, ten p.m., and I finally pulled out my assigned reading to get that over with before going to bed. Boy, was that a mistake.

Flipping through the pages with a growing anxiety, I was thoroughly convinced that it was a horror story of the creepiest kind. There was a woman going insane, people or animals or, as I was beginning to expect, some sort of Eldritch abominations lurking in her garish yellow wallpaper, and then she snaps, her husband passes out, and she keeps circling the room, crawling over him with each passing. To me, it was like something out of a psychological horror film, a woman going mad when confined in a room that the reader can never be quite sure if it’s haunted or she’s just that insane with one of those ambiguous endings that sends you out of a movie theatre with chills still travelling down your spine. It was enough to make me leave my bedroom and sit down with my mother to watch a house hunting show for a few minutes just so that familiar anxiety and paranoia that comes with reading, seeing, or watching something scary would subside. So, really, you can probably imagine my surprise when I arrived in class the next day and was told that it was a feminist story. No monsters, no horror. A feminist story. I had been wrong. “Wrong”. I had read the story “wrong”.

I stared at my teacher with a mix of confusion and a nagging feeling that maybe I read the wrong story, but, no, I hadn’t read the wrong story unless Gilman had written two short stories by the same title and I’d been the only one to receive the wrong copy. As my teacher began to talk about the story, my eyes darted around the room, searching for anyone else as surprised as I was. Alas, I alone out of my class of thirty odd Juniors seemed in the least bit perturbed that this little story was about the struggle of women against the male-centric medical profession in the 1800s instead of a lady turned into a spooky madwoman who maybe murdered her husband.

From then on, I kept an eye on how I read my assigned readings and how my classmates read them. The next time I noticed that I apparently wasn’t reading books correctly was during The Great Gatsby. As a class, we were told to make a fake social media page for any character that we wished from the book. Almost all of the girls made one for Daisy or Jordan, most of the guys created pages for Gatsby, one or two added one for Tom, and I alone made a page for Nick, the narrator. Then, in discussions, no one want to talk about Nick, just how much they liked or disliked Daisy, Gatsby, Tom, or Jordan. I was perplexed. And then it kept happening. Oh, there were a few times when we were on the same page, but during lessons and discussions I felt alienated because everyone was apparently reading our assignments the right way and I was obviously not getting the message. I was reading books the wrong way.

Was that a bad thing? College mildly assures me that it wasn’t, encourages my apparent reading impediment for the sake of interesting discussion, high school assures me that it was every time I was left getting the “wrong” theme or identifying with the wrong character, but I’ve come to my own conclusion. Maybe I am reading books “wrong”. Maybe I’m not reading them in the way that the authors intended(or, in the case of the old classics, that we think they intended), taking away the wrong message, liking the wrong characters, completely seeing the plot in the incorrect light. But I’m okay with that because I like the way I read books. “The Yellow Wallpaper” was slightly more engaging to me when I thought it was a horror story, and The Great Gatsby filled me with so many emotions when I mainly empathized with Nick. So, yes, maybe I am reading books incorrectly. That being said, if reading books incorrectly means that I enjoy the story all that much more, then I don’t want to be right.

What do you guys think? Do you think that readers should be given more freedom to take what they will from stories? Is it important to just read and teach novels and stories in the way that their authors intended?

Raine Palmer About Raine Palmer

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  • Emma

    Hi there,
    My heart goes out to you- reading wrong?! Certainly not! The Yellow Wallpaper is indeed a horror story- it is meant to be dark, chilling and deeply disturbing. That’s how it gets its feminist message across. Otherwise, surely, Perkins Gilman would have simply sat down and written a manifesto for care for women with mental health issues. I think that what you have written here emphasises the risk run by the way in which English Literature is taught in England and the US. There can be no right or wrong answer, as long as you can back up your feelings by what you’ve read in the text. Literature is supposed to be subversive- something teachers like to forget, especially when dealing with texts we like to label ‘classic’. Readers are supposed to have widely different perceptions and understandings- otherwise there would be no point in anyone writing any more books because we’d all just read the same thing. Everyone brings different experiences and feelings to the page when they read. Even when we read the same books at different stages in our life. I’ve read Wuthering Heights at least five times and it has been completely different each time depending on what I was experiencing at the time.
    It makes me very angry that anyone should turn round and tell you that your reading is ‘wrong.’ That is bad teaching and is only one step away from telling you that certain books or thoughts are wrong. Your teachers have missed out- they could have been hearing your different, interesting intelligent comments- instead they upheld the status quo.

  • fope

    yes! it is very important.. writers just tell the story! Different minds see different things.

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