Why Reading in Context is a Necessity

Posted May 1, 2013 by Stormy in Blogging, Books / 11 Comments

try to contain myself to reign it in on the blog(because I can) but at heart, I am a ranter. I normally write blog posts after a little distance, but in real life, I have lots of OPINIONS and thoughts and people, normally my roommate and family, gets to hear my rants before I’ve thought all the way through them and phrased them in a polite, yet forward, way. I rant about many, many things, but probably no topic is visited as frequently as bookish thoughts. And there are two (often interrelated) topics I tend to rant about often: censorship, and taking book passages out of context. So now that my thoughts are more organized and I can discuss this like a rational human being, I’d like to talk about the second topic today, and WHY reading in context is so, so important.

To illustrate, I’d like to use this kindle commercial. You’ve probably seen it–I know there’s been some controversy surrounding it(and I beg you, for the love of all things rational and polite, do not read the Youtube comments. Just don’t).

OK, so I know you’re wondering where I’m going with this, but I have a point, so please hang with me. My dad pointed this commercial out to me, and regardless of my personal opinions on it, I found this commercial fascinating from a communication point of view. Contrast it with this similar, yet vastly different, picture that was posted on Oreo’s Facebook page:

oreo_gay_pride_rainbow

When I first saw the Amazon commercial, I eagerly did a Google search to try and find a blog post or news article that had examined the kindle commercial in its communication context. Unfortunately, I mainly only found the same tired arguments and people either threatening to stop using Amazon, or people who applauded Amazon for “supporting gay marriage”.

Here’s the thing though: The amazon commercial is not supporting gay marriage/equality in the same way that the Oreo picture is. The commercial is accepting gay marriage. It’s not, at heart, a political commercial. It’s simply an inclusive one. I do realize that in the current political climate, right now “supporting” and “including” cannot really be divorced from one another, but I believe they will be in the future, and the context in which Amazon has chosen to place this commercial gives it a much different and deeper underlying meaning of inclusiveness. In the future, the Oreo picture will either be a symbol of a battle lost or a battle won, but the kindle commercial makes a bolder statement by saying the battle is already over, this is a fact of life, and this is a company that is going to recognize the diversity of its customers, which includes diversity in sexual orientation as well.

So. . . what about the books?

I used Oreo and Amazon as a prime example of the difference between supporting and including. It’s easy to see in the commercial and the picture that deals with such a hot-button topic right now, but sometimes that difference can be harder to interpret in fiction, by its very nature. Books are layered and have multiple characters. Each character comes into the story with his or her own unique world view based upon beliefs, family upbringing, region, and external factors. Even protagonist do bad things and even villains sometimes do things that seem heroic at the time. The best books are set in worlds that aren’t so black-and-white. Then, you remember that in the back there’s an author writing this book, and while the book is a work of fiction the author, because they are a human being, will also be influenced by their life as to what’s included in the story or even how it’s told.

The result of this is that you can have a book in which a lot of really bad, awful things happen, and nothing ever seems good, but all those bad things are being condemned. It also means you can have a book that radiates only positive experiences and on the surface is a “clean” book while perhaps encouraging unhealthy or damaging worldviews.

My point is that you simply can’t look at the plot outline of a book to tell the difference between what the book is supporting, and what the book is including because the events are realistic or in an effort to set up some sort of contrast.

I think about this topic a lot whenever banned books week comes around, because I often look at the list of books, why they were banned or challenge, and so many times it seems to come down to not understanding this difference because people haven’t actually read the book(not that I think banning/challenging a book because it supports, rather than includes something, is okay. I just think it should be a different issue entirely).

Prime example: Here’s a video of John Green, who wrote Looking for Alaska, talking about his book being challenged in a NY school. The entire video is good(and has a happy ending about the outcome of the book’s status in that particular high school, by the way), but mainly what I’m focusing on is what he says from minute 1:50-3:00.(Also, it’s not spoiler-y, in case you haven’t read the book yet).

And there, in a minute in a half, John Green basically explains everything I’ve been trying to say in 800 words(and not yet finished!) by using an example from his book. Out of context, the scene he’s talking about could be used as an example of “this book is promoting promiscuous behavior!”. In context, however, the meaning behind that particular scene and the one that follows has a much deeper meaning that simply supporting a type of behavior. Again: context is important.

I know that this is something most readers do, but I still think it’s important to be mindful of why reading in context is such a necessity. Books are written the way they are for a reason, and while I think there’s a lot of merit to examining a scene in a book and thinking through the implications, I also think it’s important–perhaps even more so–to remember the context that events in books happen in. The context of a book is what gives a book bookishness, to me(yes, I made that word up). But the quality of being a book comes from taking events and putting them all into a context, and I think reading can become deeper when we’re aware of that.

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11 responses to “Why Reading in Context is a Necessity

  1. I think we should all be doing this about everything we see and read. It’s so easy to jump a conclusion about world politics, wars, or books, if you haven’t either read the entire book, or educated yourself on the history and circumstances presented in the news.

  2. I agree. Things do need to be looked at in context. There are some things though that always rile me, context unneeded, one of them being rape used as a plot point. Gah, I cannot handle that. Great article. I had a lot of fun reading it.

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  4. Harley Bear (@HarleyBearBooks)

    This is a great topic and I love the examples. i’m going to go watch that John Green video in a minute. Sometimes when I read books where the MC is really promiscuous with someone they just met I’m like how can the author write that!?! But then I realize that it happens in real life and not writing about it would be censorship really. I like that more and more books are starting to touch on tougher topics these days.

  5. Awesome post, Stormy! Lots of good things to consider and remember when reading books. Reading in context is always important and I think understanding the context gives an overall richer reading experience. 😀

  6. Asti (A Bookish Heart)

    Great post! Honestly, I’ve never thought about the difference between supporting and including, but I think your examples do a really great job of highlighting how and why they are different. And it’s really something that does need to be carried over to reading! Books cover a lot of crazy topics, but just because they are there doesn’t mean the author is advocating what is happening or telling us readers to go off and do it. I mean, with all the murder mystery books out there if that were the case I’d be afraid to leave my house! Such things happen in books because they happen in life, and if one takes the time to actually read a book and understand it’s context, then they’ll understand more where the author stands in regard to the matter.

    • Yup, you said it– definitely agree with the murder mystery thing! This is why I always get so upset when people attack books without reading them–if you think a book is bad on a moral grounds AFTER reading, fine(you still probably shouldn’t ban it!), but it’s not really fair to fight against books just because they happen to include X,Y,and Z topics.

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