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Either way, they permanently changed the way later readers would approach Milton’s epic; in a sense, they rewrote “Paradise Lost.”The idea that readers could know an author’s intentions better than she does herself is, of course, deeply destabilizing to our usual ways of thinking about literature.Whatever embarrassment attached to re-­embracing the old bourgeois delusions was far outweighed by relief.Sometimes, I learned, it really is better to receive than to the author of three novels: “Everything You Know”; “Notes on a Scandal,” which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted for film; and “The Believers.” She has written feature articles and criticism for a wide range of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.The results of my grim-faced, slash-and-burn treks through the “polysemy” of canonical texts were infinitely duller and cruder than any of my naïve high school efforts to figure out what authors actually meant.Eventually, I slunk back, tail between my legs, to the ranks of Humble Consumers./ That all this good of evil shall produce, / And evil turn to good!”Then, in the late 18th century, something changed.For readers like her, who had always “walked into books boldly, without knocking or bothering too much about the owner,” the death of the author came neither as a great surprise nor as a cause for much mourning.I, too, read Barthes for the first time as a student, but my initial response was rather less insouciant than Smith’s.If a text can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, then why read it in the first place?Isn’t literature supposed to help us achieve contact with other minds, rather than trapping us in a hall of mirrors, in which we can see only our own distorted reflections?

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