Friday, July 18, 2014

What Happens When the English Teacher Doesn't Get It?

What is it like to struggle with a piece of literature? To be bored by something “smart people” find deep, funny, beautiful, meaningful? As teachers, we’ve mostly figured out how to do only what we’re good at, while asking many of our students every day to challenge themselves with things they are not good at yet.

I’ve been doing a lot of professional reading about reading, and it was time to run an experiment on myself. What does it take to read something difficult? Not what are good strategies to teach struggling students, but what are strategies I actually use? And can they help me appreciate something I’d previously been unable to appreciate?

My challenge: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’d started it several times and finished it once, but not with any sense of its stature as the great book many tout it to be. Yet I had a nagging feeling that as a teacher of world literature, I should be able to appreciate what has so famously been called “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race” (by critic William Kennedy in the New York Times Book Review). 

First question: Why didn’t I like it? I spent the whole time confused. Not by the magical realism--I was prepared for that--but first, because everyone has the same name. Seriously, through seven generations, the important men come and go with the same two names. Second, I suspect I was confused because I was reading for a plot.

So, I thought, how do I read this book with the eyes of someone who appreciates it? Here’s what I did:

  1. Got some background knowledge. A friend from South America told me research on Colombian history helped him. Guess what I learned? 
    1. Controversy between the Conservatives and Liberals has racked the country from before independence right down to the present day. That opened up a lot for me. 
    2. The banana company is based on an historical event. 
    3. A bit of research on the novel itself turned up cycles as a motif. Ah! So the confusion of repeated names was due to intention on the author’s part rather than inadequacy on my part.
  2. Wrote things down. If it was people’s names I found confusing, I’d have to firmly tie each to his own place in the story. I decided to write a summary of each chapter in my journal. I ended up quitting after the first 5 chapters, but doing this exercise for the early parts helped me get a firm grasp of the people and events to which later chapters keep getting referring.
  3. Focused on language and ideas. If it wasn’t about plot, I needed to find out what it was about. I think the reading strategy is “determining what is important.” This is where I really struck gold. The language is thick and gorgeous, alive and ironic. (Though I thought 3-page paragraphs had gone out with Dostoevsky.) Here are some examples from just two pages (339-340)
    • “It rained for four years, eleven months, and two days.” So much better than “about five years”!
    • “The sky crumbled into a set of destructive storms....” I, for one, would never have thought of using the verb “crumble” for a storm.
    • “The air was so damp that fish could have come in through the doors and swum out the windows.” Feels a lot like that right now in rainy season in Tokyo.  
    • One character has “the face of a beatific tortoise” (who would put that adjective and noun together?) and as his bulk diminishes in the deluge, he “becomes less pachydermic.”  (I knew a pachyderm was an elephant, but I had to check my desktop dictionary to be sure there was really an adjective form. There is. In fact, there are three, including pachydermal and pachydermatous.)
  4. Made connections. Random, perhaps. But a thought floated into my head while I was having my devotions one morning last week, so I put pen to journal to follow it, and here’s what I came up with: 
  • “It’s kind of funny, but reading One Hundred Years of Solitude at the same time as reading about Gomer--well, before, I could only imagine Hosea going after Gomer because God told him to, and God persuing Israel (and me) because he’d promised to. A sort of righteous duty of will. But so many people in One Hundred Years are smitten with this desire/love that goes on and on through all sorts of complications. In the book, it’s not necessarily good or bad, it just is. No one is least for long. Mostly this sort of love is hopeless and agonizing. Maybe because of the basic solitude of everyone. But still...I can sort of picture God (and Hosea) as one of the Buendia men in Macondo. Of course, God being almighty and all wise, he’s not a pitiful picture, like some of them. And God being Love in the business of redeeming and restoring the solitude humanity has created by breaking relationship, there is hope, and the bisis for it is solid and lasting. Solitude doesn’t get the final work--time ends with the wedding feast of the Lamb. Reality isn’t solitude punctuated by brief moments of connection; it’s connection, love, covenant (in the Garden of Eden and in the New Jerusalem) punctuated by relatively brief memonts of solitude through which Love pursues me.”

I know that I appreciate One Hundred Years of Solitude more than I did before. I might even read it again some time. I also appreciate the hard work students have to put in to getting traction on a work with an unfamiliar setting, style, or theme. And finally, I have renewed faith in my skill as a reader, the toolbox of reading strategies I use myself and teach my students, and the possibility of any reader to grow into and grow from a challenging piece of writing.

Go ahead--challenge yourself--what do you do to appreciate a challenging piece of writing?

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