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Ageless truths behave as the cement of humankind. No matter the age, a handful of principles persistently appertain to the world that surrounds us as humanity is fueled by compassion and interconnectedness. As writers engage with these ideas — centered around the questions of love, fate or the unknown — they immortalize the vital truths that unite us as human beings. The way that these truths are perceived through our personal filters will lead everyone through a different process of discovery and internalization. However, as we go through our individual experiences, we instinctively assign value and meaning that will influence our perception of later occurrences. Thus, universal truths should be challenged in a way that opens an avenue for the reader to discover their own convictions.

The stylistic method in which an author tells a story heavily affects the reader’s perception and interpretation of the piece. A story may rely on fiction to engage the reader, yet it could still reveal genuine truths about humanity despite its fabricated nature. As illustrated in his semi-autobiographical novel, “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien — who in this case is both the author and somewhat fictionalized narrator — recounts the time he killed a man while serving in the Vietnam War while also admitting that the narrative may potentially be false. However, by delivering the narrative as though O’Brien actually kills the man, the reader is able to better put themselves in the scenario and understand the writer’s experience. Oftentimes, the fourth wall is broken as the reader is posed with questions from O’Brien such as “What would you do? (…)Would you feel pity for yourself? (…)Would it hurt? (…)Would you cry, as I did?” 

The writer’s inquiries force the reader to interpret the situation from an entirely new perspective and to reevaluate their own values. Throughout “The Things They Carried,” O’Brien shoves the reader into tense situations without warning in order to make them question what they would do. This forces the reader to switch to an active form of reading, as they are faced with the pressure to dispute their moral judgments, but also allows them to form a bond with the author. The reader considers alternatives that they have never considered before, and they develop a multiplex comprehension of ethical issues that results in a more elaborate understanding of themselves. O’Brien never explicitly tells the reader how they should be feeling, but rather bridges the reader’s own experiences with the narrative.

In his lecture “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Vladimir Nabokov, who spoke to undergraduate students at Cornell University in 1984, explains how imaginative interpretation is of “lowly variety” and should not be used by readers. By doing this, the reader will either fail to see or completely ignore the writer’s overall message because they will be focused on trying to connect back to their own firsthand experiences. Readers and writers alike, according to Nabokov, should establish “an artistic harmonious balance between the reader’s mind and the author’s mind.” The reader should attempt to read the piece with the lens of the author in order to understand the author’s intention. By reading with a fixed mindset and preconceived notions, the reader automatically eliminates several interpretations of the piece. In order for a writer to be able to guide the reader toward the ideal understanding, the reader must allow himself to temporarily let go of their past experiences and preconceived notions. Rather than reading a piece emotionally, a reader should detach from their impure and contaminated past and proceed with a clean and blank mindset. By doing this, new perspectives can be seen, which in turn produce new ideas and interpretations. Ideally, the writer can guide the reader, who assembles their own thoughts and ideas, to reach the desired conclusion.

Readers require the freedom to explore and create their own interpretations while still being loosely escorted by clues and symbolic metaphors. When a reader can discover the overall meaning of a piece and comprehend it with both a personal and blank lens, the writer has succeeded in creating a thoughtful and impactful piece. Ultimately, readers can achieve similar deductions that put emphasis on how we all are related and live under one world roof. Individual accounts oblige analytical readers to shift from an “I” to a “we” perspective so that we recognize that we all live by truths and principles that are individually constructed, but remarkably and ironically similar.

MiC Columnist Grace Garmo can be contacted at ggarmo@umich.edu.