Back in high school, my English teacher liked to give us a form to fill out for each book we read. It listed the obvious bits – author, title, genre – but one of the blanks to fill in was labeled ‘Theme.’ That one always drove me nuts, trying to figure out what the author meant by writing the book. Now that I’m looking at it from the other side, as an author, I can see there’s way more to this subject than just filling in a blank.
Ray Bradbury famously stormed out of book readings and interviews when readers insisted that his classic work, Fahrenheit 451, was about censorship. His response was always that he wrote it to show what a world without books would look like, and no reader was going to tell him what his own book meant.
I feel for him. When we authors write our stories, we have an idea in mind, a story to tell. It’s probably not as concise and clear as that short-phrased theme my English teacher wanted, to tell the truth, but we generally have a focus of some sort, a goal we’re aiming for, an underlying vibe to the volume. This goes for non-fiction as well as fiction.
Then we publish the book.
That’s when all hell breaks loose.
Because once the book is in the hands of our readers, they get to decide what it means to them. That’s right. They get to choose, regardless of what we had in mind when we first put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
Here’s the thing: The purpose of literature is to share ideas, to lead the reader down a path, to give them an experience. But as much as we might like to, we can’t control what that experience will be. Each reader comes from a different background and has their own unique worldview. Everything we write gets filtered through the reader’s mind, and that’s as it should be. That means that I can write one book but it ends up being as many different books as there are readers.
But it also means I can’t tell my readers what the book means to them. I can tell them what it means to me, what I intended when I wrote it. In fact, I enjoy sharing that part of the writing process with my readers – the inspiration, the life experiences that led me to write each book. But when it comes down to it, they get to decide what the book means to them when they read it. And of course, I always hope it adds a little something to their lives, as so many of the books that I read do for me.
So what does a book mean? It means whatever you think it does.