On reading the tea leaves, 7

Sunday, July 17th, 2005

Everyone needs money to live. Saying that reading often involves quality depends on who you ask.

Certainly the cashier at McDonalds makes less money than the doctor. But it could be true that the fry cook at the local diner enjoys his job more than the surgeon, who has a secret fear of the color of entrails.

But all of this should be taken as a given. Beauty may is in the eye of the beholder, as is quality. And certaining the notion of “skilled” reading depends on time, place, context, and country. The guy who’s just lost his job probably could give a rat’s ass about whether Dante is high art. Yet, if you ask the professor, the answer could be that even though there are many people out there seeking survival pay, Dante is still a great poet. Surely the college freshman’s attitude about Dante shouldn’t be taken all that seriously, given that typically they don’t know enough to be sincere about the subject (as in any other case like this), just as I can’t really be sincere in my judgement of black holes as being either a corny idea or flabergastingly exact and cool. (How can I claim to deny evolution if I am just not familiar enough with it to say yay or nay?) I am not a fan of the Beetles, but I know enough about music to know that the Beetles’ output is pretty darned amazing, and that their music over time is consistently competent. What range, what nuance, and talk about play with the landscape, and they did it over and over again. But I wouldn’t purchase a single bit of it.

Judgement in many cases has simply to do with agnosis. If you haven’t read Dr. Suess how can you judge the work? How many people decry the violence of video games yet wouldn’t know a console from a shoebottom. Some people claim that science can’t explain everything thus we need religion to fill in the holes. Right. So many mysteries and the size of the universe is proof of something.

In English studies (or for the English major, just to keep things in sponsorship), one of the most valuable forms of reading is called “close” reading. It’s the primary goal of foundational studies of literature and from that point all other things are derived. First you learn to study the text’s nuances, understand its literal meaning, it’s details, vocabulary, structure, then you move on to bigger and better things (wink, wink). You read a poem first for what’s on the page or waving through the air, then you move to figures of speech, implied meaning, form, influence, and the weird things that happen when you manually play the record in reverse (Abner, Abner, Abner or some such thing if you remember the old ELO trick). You take the surveys, a few major authors, then enter graduate school and hit the critics and the multiverse and experience what you don’t have time for in the basic undergrad curriculum. Check out the courses at major universities for what’s currently being taught for Ph.D. How about Piers Plowman in the original? How about a whole bunch of southwestern or Chicano/a fiction and history? Why not? How about a whole bunch of Chinese literature? It’s not just about the literature, depending on what that means; it’s also about the culture? This makes the question of Dante in Italian or English a little more profound. And what about Kafka? It was Borges who consulted the Oracle and walked away with a new kind of grin. Good luck knowing your multiplying selves.

We can talk about the art of reading without ever picking up a poem. I found this list from the Army’s website just to make a point about “reading” and the idea of “reading for.” Why would it be suggested that leaders read Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization?


4 responses to “On reading the tea leaves, 7”

  1. Jayne says:

    I wouldn’t, most likely, bother (my use of that word is purposeful) to check out (both ways) Friedman’s book, but I have about 8 books piled up on teaching English language learners on my bedside table. I am no different from those leaders: I must know my craft and its attendant culture as I plunge into its reality, mustn’t I?

    Our 2 oldest spend their reading time on 2 very different, but immediate, topics. Jen reads baby care books (when she isn’t nodding off). Mandy reads sophomore college text books. Do they need to evaluate the literature they are reading? Yes, but not in the way us lit crit dweebs might. They need to determine its competency for what they wish to accomplish (Mandy is looking at nursing). It needn’t be great, just reliable and useful. They determine that as they place the new against their own schemas and then weave what they are learning into their schemas.

    Eryn reads Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Series of Unfortunate Events, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the only school-assigned text in the batch) and Eragorn (sp?), and she does so for enjoyment. She is 9. She does ask us questions about word meaning (ie, what is agnosis, not on dictionary.com, that one, but surely related to knowing) and plot happenings, and she has a heck of a good time comparing the book to the movies, but, at this point in the game of life, she isn’t so much concerned with how great it is. It simply fits her purposes. As a child on the verge of adolescence, she does fit the words on the page into her very self-centered schema and into the schema she has created that includes others and what motivates them.

    Ean, as a reticent beginning reader of words on a page who’d rather be read to, is a skilled reader of The Teen Titans, SpongeBob, and the many books we read to him. He continually, as a very, very verbal learner, allows us a peek into that developing schema as he talks himself through what he has learned from what he reads (sees/hears) and what he already knows (Robin needs to be careful when he jumps off a pallet that high; he can break his wrist, you know.)

    As I step back into the classroom, all of this is very much on my mind. What will best help my students, English Language Learners who have to pass the TAKS in the 10th grade, develop their reading skills in a way meaningful to them?

    And I said I was going to bed…

    I’ll be back sometime this week.

    J

  2. susan says:

    I think the “close” reading, as you briefly explain it here, is what I’m currently seeking as a method. I also find Jayne’s statement helpful: “They determine that as they place the new against their own schemas and then weave what they are learning into their schemas.” It’s a fit with my tendency to rework the old via the new for both comprehension and stability/credibility of sorts.

  3. Steve says:

    Susan,

    In my poetry readings, I’ve been rethinking some of William Carlos Williams’ work. I’ll put up some readings that I would consider short close readings. Then we can read together.

  4. susan says:

    Sounds good. I’m making my way through Didascalicon slowly right now as one of my self-imposed studies. In viewing your reading recommendations in another post, I’m sure Hugh will help me learn a pace and depth of concentration that will be useful in all future reading.