The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Against Themes, Part I

August 1, 2007
Washington, DC

In the Temple of Literature it's not always necessary to talk about books in order to enjoy them.

The Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam. Source: Flickr

I don't really believe this, of course. My work for the Big Read, and before that as a book critic in San Francisco, is predicated on the insufficiency of reading literature without kicking it around afterwards. What sometimes makes me impatient is a particular kind of book chat that I've engaged in myself, and that can even precede other, more worthwhile sorts, but that still makes my heart sink when it's invoked above all else. I'm referring to the discussion of "themes." Or am I being unfair?

You've been there. We've all been there. Say the book is The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The discussants take their seats around a lopsided table, and a designated moderator lobs the fatal question: What themes do you see in this book? Right away, even the crickets fall silent. Somebody munches a cookie, and it sounds like a rifleshot.

"Er...identity?" someone ventures. Encouragement from the leader. Nods all around. Identity. Definitely lots of identity in there. The person who said identity leans back, on the scoreboard already.

Jealous, another one pipes up with "Loneliness!" This is going well, thinks the leader. More nods from the rest. Loneliness. Definitely lots of loneliness in there.

Teacher's pet going once. Teacher's pet going twice.

"Self-definition," somebody blurts. Kind of like identity, but we'll take it. Self-definition. Definitely lots of self-definition in there...

The only problem with this brand of discussion is, it's not a discussion. And it's hardly limited to book groups. You'd see it nowadays in too many book reviews, if "too many book reviews" were still an imaginable concept. Up until the recent crisis in book criticism made all reviews an endangered species, it wasn't uncommon to find phrases in your morning paper like: "Wagstaff's compelling new opus is at once a poignant exploration of his recurrent themes of alienation, angst, and needlepoint, and..."

This is reviewery by catalogue, the laundry-list school of literary criticism. Wagstaff's novel may indeed be about all those things, but until a reviewer tries to explain what the author says about them, and how she says it, he simply hasn't said anything at all. Big Read mainstay The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is about self-definition, loneliness, and identity (though I wouldn't give you much for a book that wasn't). Does that even begin to plumb the intricacies of McCullers' character development, or how she generates suspense without giving you any idea where the story is headed, or any of a dozen other nuances? I don't think so.

Again, maybe I just got up on the wrong side of the muffin this morning. Themes are an indispensable part of any literary discussion, and frequently factor into why a city or town picks a Big Read book in the first place. Besides, book discussion with strangers can be ticklish enough without one or more don'ts heckling around in your head. But for an icebreaker, I can take What themes do you see in this book? or leave it alone. Give me What did you think? any day.

Speaking of What did you think, what do you think? Am I being too hard on a tried-and-true way of kickstarting literary conversation? Or does theme-happy book chat get on your nerves too? What are your reliable ways of getting a book discussion started and keeping it going? More about this, including your ideas -- plus how we came to develop the questions in our Readers Guides as a way to build on useful but routine discussions of theme -- in an upcoming post...