I opened my course packet to read “Study of Literary Habits” expecting basically ‘Good Readers and Good Writers part II’, another thirty minute exercise in realizing how devastatingly poor of a reader I apparently am . Instead I was relieved to find a mere eighteen lines of poetry. I read it several times, and didn’t really get what it was trying to say. So, I went back through, carefully filling the margins with neat little notes concerning everything from the ABCBAC rhyme structure to the double meaning of “ripping times” in line 10. I even wrote a little note about the juxtaposition of the colloquial language of the poem against the very formal sounding title. My high school English teachers would’ve cried tears of joy. But even after all this careful analysis, I still didn’t really feel like I got the poem. In the final stanza, the speaker is disillusioned; his life has not turned out the way the fanciful readings of his youth had suggested to him. He relates more to the cowardly store clerk that the hero of the story. I understand all this, but what I don’t get is why Larkin would write this. Considering that he’s chosen to make his living as a poet, I highly doubt that he shares the speaker’s opinion about books. So what’s his angle? Is he simply trying to be ironic and funny? Is he trying to reach out to a new audience: people that don’t like to read? I was stumped.
After a while I started to try and get deeper. Perhaps, I thought, he’s commenting on the separation between art and life, how the worlds that exist inside literature are inescapably separate from the world we live in day-to-day. That seemed closer, maybe even right, but somehow I felt there had to be more. So I put it down for a while, went out to dinner, and when I came back, my roommate was reading a passage of Literary Theory I had marked for him (the part about I.A. Richards on pg. 13). When he eventually handed it back to me, I was struck by a line I had highlighted on that page:
“…one is struck by the habits of perception and interpretation which the spontaneously share – what they expect literature to be, what assumptions they bring to a poem and what fulfillments they anticipate they will derive from it.”
I instantly realized what mistake I had been making when I was reading “Study of Reading Habits”, and what wily Larkin had been trying to tell me the whole time. Reading it again, I began to see the poem as an exercise in recognizing and avoiding those all too easy to make assumptions. Even in the title, Larkin challenges your expectations – “Study of Reading Habits” sounds more like the title of English textbook than of a poem, and right off the bat your expectations are turned on their heads. I realized that I came to the poem with many assumptions and expectations that turned out to be false: I assumed that the author agreed with the speaker (which of course we all have been told not to do, but it's just too easy), I did not expect a poem to criticize literature, and I anticipated to derive at least a few fulfillments from it, perhaps an inspiring or insightful perspective on life, or something of the sort. Now that I realize what happened, why I was struggling before, I finally get what Larkin was trying to show me, which was not at all what I was looking for. He wants us to realize what assumptions we bring to the text, so that maybe through realization, we can work to eliminate them, and start getting at what the author actually meant, instead of just finding what we wanted to find, and were unconsciously looking for the whole time.
This ended up much more long-winded than I meant it to be, but if you’re reading this then that means you stuck through it, so thanks to you. I look forward to discussing this in class with everyone bright and early tomorrow.