Why you should think about what you read: what English Literature has taught me this week

Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw may have been published over a century ago, but aside the eeriness of the ghost story, a more literary critical point lies underneath. The principal narrator of the book, the governess, starts off as sounding as more than adequate as a narrator. As the story proceeds, however, one finds her story less believable and her narration unreliable as she recalls her tale.

James was undoubtedly ahead of his time. He brought up the idea of questioning what we are reading and why; and whether reader should fully believe the person writing or narrating. This concept could not be more relevant in today’s world; in a global phenomenon of fake news, swarms of paparazzi and endless clickbait, taking a step back and critically evaluating what we read is vital.

Whilst this may give people uncomfortable flashbacks to close reading at High School, the skills we use for reading in those situations can also be applied when reading any article or information. I’m not saying bust out all your highlighters and pens and look for alliteration; I’m saying think about who is writing this, who they’re writing it for, and why.

Take well-loved Canadian PM Justin Trudeau. I liked him; for a start, almost every article I read was saying how much of a hero he was compared to President Donald Trump – and I believed it blindly until I was fortunate to come across this article by the Guardian. Trudeau, as far as I’m aware, is not a racist or sexist (so far) – but like Trump, he’ll do what he thinks is best for his country. In this case I profoundly disagree selling barrells of oil is best for his country. I don’t hate him, but I don’t see him as a saviour for the West as beforehand.

If it wasn’t for that article, I would have continued to buy the wonderful portrayals of Trudeau and how he could do no wrong. Of course, I don’t feel as strongly against him as the author of the article does (I watched the video of Trudeau and he did say he would sell the oil ‘safely’ and ‘sustainably’ – how he will do this I don’t know).

This brought me to think about how, if we feel so strongly for or against something, we will take on almost any article that supports or believes it. Countless articles link to videos or paraphrase what people said, and before you know it bloody battles are being fought on the well known battlegrounds of Facebook comments, with as much as half of people not even watching the original video or reading the original article or quote. Why?

We like to see what we believe, and belief is a beautiful thing. Anything that comes close to shattering this, we get our guards up and will look for anything that backs our point up. These days you can find any type of statistics and data to back up any point you want to make; if you find something that supports your initial belief or view in a paraphrase, you’re more likely just to go on that rather than check out the original quote.

So what do we do about this? Read actively. Find a quote? Look for the original. Find a statistic? Look for other ones to back it up and its source. Find an article supporting your point? Research the author and look at the newspaper its written for. I’m not saying you should do this for every Buzzfeed quiz or Film Review (though Buzzfeed’s reliability is altogether another question).

Like James’ The Turn of the Screw, a story can have different narrators and these people may or may not be reliable. So don’t just believe everything you read, even if it does match your viewpoints; if you can back up your point having said you’ve looked at all the influencing factors, you’re already further ahead than most people are.

Check out my last blogpost on living far away from your extended family here.

 

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