Friday, January 1, 2016

The Brain-Bending Nature of Learning to Read Literature

Half a page of reading taught me half a lifetime about literature  this Christmas break. The half-page, mind you, was in Japanese, a language in which I can conversationally squeak by, though reading is another matter. And reading literature, as I discovered, is another universe.

The inspiration was a Japanese colleague who was reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise for the English style. I said to myself, “If a math teacher can do that, an English teacher certainly can!” The book I picked was Haruki Murakami’s novel After Dark, which I figured might be doable (as well as interesting) since I’m pretty familiar with the English translation, having taught it several times. It might also give me some insights for when I teach it again later in the spring.

It did. In addition to a lot of vocabulary and kanji symbols, I’ve learned something about literature, something about stories, something about sentences, and a whole lot more respect for the struggle English language learners face in my classroom every day.

Literature. We literature junkies love language for the surprising and metaphorical ways it can be used, right? So in the first 2 paragraphs of this novel, I have run into the words organism, arteries, blood cell, circulate, and basal metabolism. You’d almost think it was a biology text. Except that it’s describing a city. And some of the other words are contradictions and basso continuo. If I were reading a math text or a science text, I’d have to learn math and science vocabulary. Reading a literary text, I have to be ready for anything! That’s hard.

Stories. When discussing this novel with students, I’ve always skipped straight over this weird initial 2-page overview of the city, straight to the part where we actually meet the characters. If I’ve ever addressed this part, it was only as it connects to a couple of other passages that break the 4th wall in a weird sort of post-modern way, the author identifying with the reader in opposition to the characters by articulating what is “our” viewpoint on the scene. But reading only one sentence every night has given me a lot of time to think about this introduction. All this body metaphor imposed on the city—of course when meet the characters they’re going to turn out to be interconnected! (The supreme irony is when I teach short stories I make a point of going back to the first paragraph(s) and finding the whole story, in retrospect, foreshadowed there.)

Sentences. Or maybe translation. The point is, the second paragraph (the first paragraph being one very short sentence) is 9 sentences in Japanese and 5 in English. I wouldn’t find that so very strange if I had not been coming, over the years, to a more and more explicit way of teaching to read as a writer, exploring how a writer uses a particular grammatical construction, out of the many options available, to say exactly what she wants to. So if I use an English sentence from the translation as a mentor text for students to study and emulate, how does that differ from what a Japanese student would learn, studying a differently divided sentence as a mentor text? For example, while the work in both languages fluctuates between longer and shorter sentences, the original Japanese separates into 4 sentences one particular sentence that the English translator combined into one with a short main clause followed by a series of 4 participial phrases: “Countless arteries stretch to the ends of its elusive body, circulating a continuous supply of fresh blood cells, sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old, sending out new contradictions and collecting the old.”

I am amazed by language. I am amazed by literature. I am amazed by my students reading literature in a language that is not their mother tongue. 

Though I am somewhat reluctant to see this lovely leisure time pass into a memory, I am increasingly eager to get back to the classroom to share with my students all the things I’ve read and learned this vacation.

Hope you are, too!

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