I always begin my workshops for upper division English students with an exercise to help them see how many things they might write about and generate keywords. Using whatever text they’ve just finished in class, I ask them what it was about. And there is always an embarrassing pause and the professor gets hilariously annoyed with their students. After the pause, the students rally and come up with a good list of topics and keywords. I worked with a Shakespeare class yesterday and, as I was scribbling words up on the whiteboard, I got to thinking about how hard it can be to sum up something like Richard III, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc. in short phrases and single words.
Summing up books in short phrases and words is something I do all the time, and something that I see book reviewers write about all the time. It’s the mirror of what I imagine authors have to do when they pitch their ideas to agents and publishers. We take a long piece of prose that the author has created and boil it all back down to the idea that might have sparked the story in the first place. Well, at least, we boil it back do to the idea we think was the spark. There might be some disagreement with the author. (I’m looking at you, Ray Bradbury.) English majors and literary critics do this because they want to get at the heart of what a story is about. Book reviewers and recommenders do it because it seems to be the best way to hook a potential reader.
The problem (if you can really call it a problem) is that, just as my students discover while we fill up a white board with ideas, themes, and issues, texts are never about just one thing. For a really great book, it’s probably not fair to even try. There might be a major theme, but a quick look below the surface of a story will find all sorts of interesting things to think about. At least, it will in a good book.
I can understand why those English majors pause when I ask them what a text is about. They’re learning how to summarize thousands of words down to something they can type into a database. Not only do they need to do this to find research on whatever interests them about literature, but I think they also need this skill in order to share the meaning of stories with others. Summarizing is shorthand for talking about books. Without summarizing, the only way to talk about what Richard III and The Handmaid’s Tale have to tell us is to read them (which one should do anyway) and there are so many books out there and so little time!