the-old-man-and-the-seaHidden meaning behind writing has always been a pet peeve of mine. It started for me when I read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway in high school. I enjoyed the book. It was certainly better than Heart of Darkness and Siddhartha.

However, after the class finished reading it, the teacher started dissecting it for us with themes and symbolism. The teacher made it sound like Hemingway had been trying to rewrite the New Testament. Suddenly, the book wasn’t as enjoyable for me. Instead of being something that I could read and feel, it became something that needed to be examined and picked apart.

Why do that? What did the symbolism matter? In many cases, it is only a figment of reader’s imagination as this article in Mental Floss shows.

In 1963, a 16-year-old student who had probably been faced with the same thing I had been in an English class decided to go straight to the source. He wrote 150 novelists and asked them if they intentionally put symbolism in their books. A dozen of the authors responded.

Some of the responses are humorous, but my favorite one is Isaac Asimov’s reply. When asked if he intentionally put symbolism in his books, he replied, “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”

An author takes in lots of different information that churns around in his or her subconscious to emerge as a story. It’s the resulting mixture that is important. However, if an author starts thinking about planting symbolism, then it becomes forced and obvious (Think: Movies with a message).

While a book may have symbolism in it, it may differ from person to person depending on their own life experiences. In my high situation, my teacher could tell me what he saw, but that doesn’t mean that I saw and having him point it out to me, changed the story for me.

Are the colors, brush strokes and subject matter that an artist chooses so important? Or is it the way a painting makes you feel?

Read. Experience. Enjoy.