In this week’s Sunday Book Review, Zoë Heller and Adam Kirsch weigh the importance of an author’s intended meaning versus a reader’s interpretation of the text. Which is more important, they ask. “If a text can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, then why read it in the first place?” Kirsch argues. “Isn’t literature supposed to help us achieve contact with other minds, rather than trapping us in a hall of mirrors, in which we can see only our own distorted reflections? Surely there must be limits to a text’s interpretability.” I instantly thought of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—the 1952 epic that confronts America’s twisted legacy of identity politics, race, black nationalism, and class disillusionment. “I am an invisible man,” it begins. And depending on the reader, the ensuing 500 pages present a multitude of revelations, answers, or questions (or a mix of the three). Yet, no matter which way you interpret the book, its true essence is found, time and again, in the first sentence—all conclusions root back to Ellison’s opening line. “Great works of literature are like stars,” Kirsch concludes, “they stay put, even as we draw them into new constellations.”
Sleeping. A little black girl, lying on her couch, in her home in Detroit. Dreaming little black girl dreams. Her sleep shattered by a firebomb lobbed through the window. Police force their way in, desperately looking for a man. A shot daggers the air. A bullet to her head. Aiyana Stanley Jones. Seven years old. Dead.