Perrine on Escape and Interpretation

rembrandt scholar in study
Rembrandt van Rijn. Scholar in His Study. 1634, oil on canvas, National Gallery in Prague, Czech Republic.

The first question to ask about fiction is, Why bother to read it?

Laurence Perrine, an English professor whose Sound and Sense textbook series was immensely popular, splits literature between escape, which helps us “pass the time agreeably,” and interpretive, “written to broaden and deepen and sharpen our awareness of life” (3). Escape and interpretation are not “two great bins, into… which we can toss any given story” but a scale with each inhabiting opposite ends (4).

Likewise, there are two readers. The escapist is an immature reader who wants a familiar, superficial light show. This reader desires a sympathetic protagonist, an exciting plot, a happy outcome, and a theme that “confirms the reader’s already-held opinions” (6). A genre that caters to this mentality is the fairy-tale.

The discriminating reader, in contrast, doesn’t reject escapism but has a “steady diet.” This reader understands how junk food fiction can only deliver “superficial attitudes toward life” and might “actually distort… reality and give us false… expectations” (7). Instead, the discriminator reads a variety of fiction and nonfiction, sampling the greats alongside the less-thans.

rembrandt scholar in study 2

J.R.R. Tolkien is more sympathetic to the escaping reader. He describes their activity as “the Escape of the Prisoner” rather than “the Flight of the Deserter” (61). He would have disagreed expressly with Perrine’s denigration of fairy-stories as a literature for children (the immature reader) or those fantasizing about petty successes. The “association of children and fairy-stories,” Tolkien writes, “is an accident of our domestic history” (34). Fantasy might be re-adapted for kids, but ultimately it is the creation of a “Secondary World” which the mind can enter, explore, and enjoy (37).

No matter your opinion on the matter, Perrine ends on a universal sentiment about the importance of reading (7):

When we enter a library and glance at the books on the shelves, we are at first likely to be bewildered by their variety and profusion. Thousands of books sit there, each making its claim on us, each seeming to cry out “Read me! Read me! Read me!” or “No, read me!” We have time to read only a fraction of them. If we are wise, we shall read as many as we can without neglecting the other claims of life. Our problem is how to get the most out of what time we have. To make the richest use of our portion, we need to know two things: (1) how to get the most out of any book we read and (2) how to choose the books that will best repay this time and attention we devote to them.

Attributions

Perrine, Laurence & Thomas R. Arp. “Escape and Interpretation.” Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, sixth edition. Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993.

J.R.R. Tolkien. “On Fairy-Stories,” 1964. Tree and Leaf. HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

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