The Purpose of Plot: An Argument with Myself

August 21, 2015 | 13 books mentioned 2 8 min read

plot

1.
Last winter I visited family in the Texas Hill Country for the holiday. As always happens when my cousins and I find ourselves in our ancestral home for any extended time, full of ham and sick to death of Friends reruns, we eventually made our annual pilgrimage to the thrift store. A quick walk down the street from my grandparents’ house, the local D.A.V. is little more than a shack with a cracked concrete front porch and dumpsters full of castoff donations in the back. This isn’t one of those classed-up thrift stores one sometimes finds in cities, full of marked-down designer goods and “hidden gems.” The D.A.V. is a store with a wall of dusty coffee carafes, their matching coffee makers long lost, bins of fuzzy toys still full of fleas, and tables stacked with naked VHS tapes and elementary school dioramas. Everything feels like it came from the home of a retired rancher who also happened to be something of a fashion plate in the ’80s. To say we love it is an understatement.

coverIn the back of the D.A.V. there’s a dark, water-damaged corner with a few bookcases, which someone half-heartedly started organizing five years ago and then abandoned. My cousins and I usually avoid this area — it’s a little creepy, even for our Southern Gothic tastes, and the books aren’t very appealing. Aside from the typical thrift store celebrity memoirs, Christian romances, and cookbooks, there isn’t much selection, and my attention is usually too absorbed in comparing polyester shirts and chipped coffee mugs to even browse. But on this particular trip, I spotted a bottle-green book marked Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels on the first and only shelf I looked into, and promptly added it to my cache of broken and cast-off items. I bought the book for 80 cents, took it home, and immediately forgot all about it.

covercovercoverThree months later, I found it again while straightening up my apartment. Only last week did I actually check through which 101 novels are immortalized as “best.” Collected and printed by Barnes & Noble in 1962, 29 years before I was born, that 101 includes only 56 titles I recognize. I have read a mere 19. Among them are the usual classics — Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey, Little Women. But there’s also Ivanhoe, which I’ve read, and Ben-Hur, which I haven’t, despite my grandfather’s frequent prodding, and then there’s something called File No. 113, which I didn’t know was a book at all and which frankly sounds awful.

Of course the very idea of a book composed solely of the plots of other books is ridiculous, and I bought it mostly as a joke. Let’s read what they have to say about Moby-Dick, I thought. Try to sum that up in two pages! And what’s Les Mis like in 3,000 words or less?

But underneath that joke was a little sincere curiosity — what is File No. 113? – and more than a little self-recognition. If I was alive and reading in 1962, decades before Google and Wikipedia and Goodreads, I just might have purchased Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels at the original price of $1.75 out of a very sincere and un-ironic impulse to know as much as possible about every book ever published without necessarily taking the time to read them all. I say this because I have that impulse now, in 2015, and because I had it in 1996, when I learned how to read, and if I am lucky enough to make it to 2062 I will probably have it then, too.

2.
covercoverI was raised on book abridgments. I hoarded my allowance to buy Children’s Classics at the dollar store, titles like The Three Musketeers and Journey to the Center of the Earth condensed into little 100-page versions, illustrated with loose line drawings and bound in cardboard covers. These “classics” took me only about a day to consume, and as they stacked up on my childhood bookcase I began to feel quite well-read for a child 10 years old.

One of the best of these classics was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, with its illustrations of the elegant submarine and the characters’ daring underwater explorations. I knew enough to understand I didn’t have the full story, and when I was 10 I begged my parents to buy me the original novel for Christmas, which they obligingly did. I was thrilled to unwrap the little blue book, with its sober cover and 600 pages, but when I started reading the type was too small and the sentences too long. After struggling mightily through about 50 pages, there was no sign of the Nautilus and I abandoned the new book in favor of my old cardboard version.

My favorite book during these years didn’t come from the dollar store, but it was an abridgment — a shortened version of Ivanhoe, also in a bottle green cover, this time illustrated with a knight on horseback, carrying a shield and a banner. It was longer and more coherent than the chopped-up dollar store books, and I loved the adventure of the story, the castles and tournaments and battles and ladies. So when I was 13, a few formative years after the Jules Verne failure, I set out to read the original version, lengthy exposition, dated language and all. This time I found I still loved the book, though in a different way. True, Ivanhoe no longer offered that sugary high of constant action and adventure, but there was a lingering pleasure that came from a slow immersion in Walter Scott’s long scenes. I spent hours unraveling the relationships that linked his massive cast of characters and reread the climactic battle scene (which was about as long in the original version as the whole novel was in abridgment) several times straight through. The full novel had a complexity that the shortened version clearly lacked, and though it required more work than I was used to, it was also a more rewarding reading experience. I liked reading difficult books, I realized. This was fun. This was better. And though my definition of “difficult” has changed again and again over the years, that enjoyment has stayed.

3.
This is not to say that I’ve outgrown my craving for easily digestible narratives stripped of meaty content. I enjoy struggling with difficult books, sure, but I also Google movie plots constantly, often while watching the movie in question. I read recaps of new episodes of Game of Thrones, though I stopped watching the show several seasons ago, and I skipped the first however-many seasons of Breaking Bad, but made sure to catch the finale. Of course I should know better — what did I learn from rereading Ivanhoe 10 years ago if not to savor the actual work of reading (or, in these cases, watching), to reap the benefits of sustained attention and commitment?

But I have a small stockpile of excuses at the ready, which I deploy on my scornful friends and family every time they fuss at my Wikipedia addiction. These range from the petty (I hate suspense, and feeling left out of conversations, and just generally being ignorant) to the refined (I do away with all that petty plot business up front so that I can focus on the actual art, you know?)

Vladimir Nabokov claimed that there was no reading, only rereading. I’m tempted to agree, and my argument, though different from his, might go something like this: the first read of a given story is often so concerned with plot, with the simple mechanics of a story, the “this happened then this then this,” that it’s difficult to appreciate the story’s craft. It takes at least another reread, and probably more than that, to really appreciate a written work in its full complexity and significance. And here’s where my justification for summary addiction becomes grandiose beyond all bearing: what if I can skip that first plot-driven read by just checking a synopsis so that when I encounter a text for the first time I’m free to notice and appreciate all of it?

4.
coverTurns out, it doesn’t really work like that, however much I wish it did. Knowing a major plot point beforehand spoils some of the effect. Of course it does. I’m reminded too of a time when I was little and found a book version of the first Indiana Jones film. I was so upset by reading about Indy and Marian escaping a chamber of vipers by smashing through a room filled with mummies and skeletal miscellany that when we watched the movie I cried real tears trying to convince my parents to fast-forward through the scene. They didn’t, much to their credit, and that particular cinematic moment turned out not to be nearly as terrifying or significant as I’d expected. The Raiders of the Lost Ark is still one of my favorite films, and I hate to think that I might have missed it due to summary-induced hysteria.

My plot habit has cost me in other ways, too. Having a decent sense of the overall plan of a book or movie has frequently disrupted the very sense of community I’m trying to create. I read Moby-Dick in one of those dollar store abridgments when I was about 10, and remember in vivid detail an illustration of Fedallah, the dark prophet Ahab sneaks on board the Pequod. Ten years later I read the full Moby-Dick over the course of a college semester and met weekly with a professor and three other students to compare our progress and discuss our thoughts. Part of the fun of this exercise was supposed to be the shared process of discovery — none of us students had ever read all of Moby-Dick before. But when we came to the particularly eerie chapter in which Ishmael sees five shadows dart on board the Pequod (the first foreshadowing of Fedallah’s eventual appearance), I couldn’t join in my classmate’s excitement and speculation. I knew exactly what the shadows were — some of the magic was lost for me. Somewhat similarly, a few of my friends dislike talking about Game of Thrones with me because they know full well I didn’t suffer through any of the show’s horrors, as they did, but simply read about it later on The Atlantic. I’m not a full member of the club, and I know it.

In fact, I’ve begun to worry that plot summaries (and my generally unthinking impulse to read them at the slightest provocation) actually run completely contrary to the purposes of books and film and television. I’m not helping my reading, I’m defeating it; I’m not becoming more well-versed in modern culture, I’m ensuring my separation from it. Yes, by Googling reviews of the latest Game of Thrones episode rather than watching it, I’m protecting myself from the adrenaline-fueled horror of seeing someone be hacked to bits or poisoned or set aflame. I’m encountering the story with a much clearer head than I would have if I were actually watching. But I’m also missing a vital piece of the show — it’s meant to be horrifying. And when I know that Fedallah just snuck onboard the Pequod, I’m missing something there, too: I don’t get the full sense of foreshadowing that Herman Melville intended, don’t feel the full weight of Ishmael’s quiet but growing dread. The moment becomes just another plot point to check off my mental list.

Perhaps this is all just a continuation of a much older and larger argument about why we read or watch movies or enjoy any kind of artistic entertainment. Is it a primarily emotional or mental exercise? Can it be both? By reading the plot summary of any given work, am I choosing the mental by default? By refusing to engage with a work on its own terms, am I negating the exact thing I mean to be enjoying and celebrating? Yes, I think. Maybe I am. Probably I shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s time to watch a movie and be sincerely surprised by everything that happens. Maybe it’s time to finally outgrow my love of dollar store abridgments.

But let us return, one last time, to Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels. What does it have to tell us about Ivanhoe? Nothing at all. The “plot outline,” condensed by some Prof. Fenwick Harris, is nothing more than a page-long excerpt lifted from the novel’s climatic battle scene, paired with a short critical essay on the significance of the Jewish Lady Rebecca. Given this and nothing else, a reader couldn’t possibly understand Ivanhoe. I’m not sure they could tell you a single significant thing about it. Reading the novel for the first time they would encounter every plot point naturally, would feel every feeling, and I wouldn’t dare complain. Perhaps this is the plot summary in its most natural state, freed from all excuses and justifications: mostly useless, a little ridiculous, and ultimately beside the point.

Image Credit: Nicholas Eckhart.

is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York and every so often writes things at kaulielewis.wordpress.com.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for an interesting text. Now on predicting, I do think that consuming stories in any form makes you a more skilled reader/viewer in general. Writing, however, makes one understand the very mechanisms of plot and structure. This seems to me the biggest downside of the vraft, the whole de-mystifying of stories, deconstructing the stories that made one fall in love with the world of story-telling to begin with.
    /D.H

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