Reading Too Much Into It

I thought, as I read some knowledge about your brain into a passage from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, back here, maybe I am reading too much into it? As I realised I was getting close to the blog’s three-year review (next post), I had a few thoughts about this:

* I really don’t think I was; I think what I said was there, was there. Is there.

* I think it’s my job (in that I am a literature academic, yes, but also in that I am an enthusiast who thinks literature is important to the world) to read a lot into great literature, so much that too much requires effort, not just a lack of self-control. It’s not that I think I am noticing things that aren’t available to real readers as they really read, just that I am more explicit about them, highlighting things that are available to implicit perceptions.

* I was reminded of a passage from Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster (1570) by a colleague. It’s more directly germane to some of my other work, which has focused on the imitation of Latin and Greek literature by English renaissance writers. Ascham realises that his detailed discussion of the nature of imitation, as he observes it in practice among the Romans, will make some think he is reading too much into it:

Some busie looker upon this litle poore booke, that hath neither will to do good him selfe, nor skill to iudge right of others, but can lustelie contemne, by pride and ignorance, all painfull diligence and right order in study, will perchance say, that I am too precise, too curious, in marking and thus about the imitation of others: and that the olde worthie Authors did never busie their heades and wittes, in folowying so preciselie, wither the matter what other men wrote, or els the maner how other men wrote. They will say, it were a plaine slaverie, and iniurie to, to shakkle and tye a good witte, and hinder the course of a mans good nature with such bondes of servitude, in folowyng other.

He then goes on to say that imitation of older authors has been the cornerstone of achievement since forever. I would pick out the way that Ascham imagines his detractors effectively demeaning the great poets that are his subject, when they demean his effortful scholarship. It’s unnecessarily patronising to assume that literature is a little thoughtless, the product of wit or genius or circumstances. It seems best to me to default towards respectfully reading a lot into the work of people who have put a lot into it.

In the Oxford English Dictionary you’ll find a word ‘pittle’ — this word, in fact, but I’m sticking with the old spelling here. To ‘pittle’ is to waste time, or to potter; but the OED reveals that its first source, by miles, is this moment in Ascham. Maybe it’s related to ‘piddle’, is the suggestion. But Ascham might have just made it up.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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