Do your students also love to say “reading too much into this”? I remember this remark as a buzz-kill that frequently deflated discussions in high school English. Just when we had begun to dig into the precious details of a novel or poem and unearth some larger idea, someone would inevitably scoff, “we’re reading too much into this.” Today, my students, indignant, ask “isn’t that reading too much into it?” about almost every attempt to find meaning in the art, literature, and cultural artifacts of the past.? I cringe every time I hear it. The sentiment strikes me as exquisitely anti-intellectual, creating an image of the useless scholar wasting time on meaningless trivialities, like Socrates measuring how far a flea can jump in Aristophanes’s anti-intellectual comedy, The Clouds. “Reading too much into this” seems equivalent to saying “there’s too much thought going on here,” a complaint that has no place in a history class!

Rivka Maizlish

Yes, students do often say this, but there’s a reason for it. They’re failing, from mere lack of experience, to realize the difference in time and intellectual investment between reading a book, or, in the case cited here, reading about someone’s career (which they have just done) and writing a book, or making a career (which they have not done).

I’ve often gotten this from students who are reading Joyce’s Ulysses. I try to remind them that he was an immensely brilliant man who spent seven years writing the book. A great many things might occur to you when you spend seven years working on a book, especially if you’re immensely brilliant. And if that doesn’t convince them I show them the Linati schema.

Of course, it’s easier to do that than to convince students that Al Jolson was just trying to make money when he wore blackface. In that case you’d have to convince students that people have complex and inconsistent motives and may not even consciously understand why they’e doing what they’re doing. But that too can be done by reference to their own lives.

And then there are those occasions when the students are right: you really are reading too much into it. And it’s good to keep that open as a possibility.