Comparing Texts to Personal Experience

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna Wilkerson earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience, and designed the Dance Program curriculum for College of Central Florida. Dr. Wilkerson has a published poetry collection entitled Odd Remains, published in the UK in 2013.

Each reader brings individual opinions, beliefs, and experiences to the reading of a text. Understanding this dynamic can help you enjoy and learn from the books you read.

Reading and Real Life

There is a theory about literature, called Reader Response Theory, that makes use of the strong personal response an individual reader has to any particular text. This theory comes close to stating that every text is created anew every time a different reader opens a book. Of course, you and many other readers will bring similar characteristics and experiences to the activity of reading a story or novel. As you know, we often choose friends who share our backgrounds, interests, and world view. Looking at reader response in this way, we can think of interpretive communities: groups of readers who interpret what a text says in a similar manner.

There are many factors affecting how you respond to and interpret a given text, including: values, beliefs, ethnic heritage, cultural background, and personal experiences. Think for a moment how much potential for diversity is contained in that list! Let's look at some examples of varying interpretations of a story, depending on the reader's past and present circumstances.

Childhood Choices

When you were a child, you may have liked a certain type of book more than any other. You may have even had one single book that you returned to again and again. If this is the case for you, your preferences probably reflect some of your childhood characteristics. For example, if you were very imaginative and liked to think about fantasy places and characters, you may have been drawn to Lewis Carroll's classic tale Alice in Wonderland.

Wonderland Tea Party

This book also generally has appeal for children who, for whatever reason, long to get outside their ordinary world and be in another place. Of course, after the first reading of the book you know that Wonderland was only a dream, but it may still be comforting to think that visiting a new and different world could happen.

On the other hand, if you were the type of child who lived for sports and constant action, the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts may have seemed a bit silly and pointless. Perhaps, instead, you liked biographies about sports heroes. Or maybe you were fascinated by stories like My Side of the Mountain or The Three Musketeers. Again, this makes sense that certain traits and preferences in ''real life'' are reflected in what individuals like to read.

Influence of Life Events

Things that happen to us in life, either by choice or by chance, also influence our perspectives on stories and novels. You may have read (or at least heard about) the recently popular young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. This story, about two teen-aged cancer patients who fall in love, has appeal for many young readers, but perhaps for different reasons.

If you or someone you know has battled with cancer, then you bring that experience and all of the associated emotions to the story when you read it. Perhaps you relate personally to one of the characters. Or, if the person you know was an adult, you might imagine how that person would have dealt with disease as a child or teenager. And you might find the details of the two protagonists' treatment more familiar.

Medical Tests and Treatments
Medical Procedure

If cancer has not touched your life, you might be shocked to realize that children and young people have these serious, sometimes tragic, experiences. Whatever your reaction to this novel, you can be certain that you see the story through the lens of your own personal experience.

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