Stephen Dedalus is not really James Joyce. We know that, right? A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a work of fiction. So is Ulysses. Surely the facts of Joyce's life inform the characters in his books, but Joyce is not asking the reader to become involved because he is a celebrity or has lead a strange life, he is asking the reader to become involved in a great narrative - fictional tales which contain truths far greater than the miniscule details of one person's life.
Nick Carraway is not F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nor is Dick Diver. Pip is not Charles Dickens. Clarissa Dalloway is not Virginia Woolf.
We know these things because we know how to read. Really read. That is, we know how to take in a narrative as the author offers it, and we know how to seek the truths we might find therein. We know what storytelling is - an act of framing the world in a specific way. And we know what good storytelling is - an art of framing the world in new ways, in ways that create more questions than answers.
"We" know these things, but sadly, many do not.
Pity Oprah Winfrey, The New York Times, the book publishers of the United States, the agents, the ghost writers. Pity them all. They lack these skills. No wonder so many of those 'in power' are so threatened by something like Wikipedia. If your literary analytical skills are so poor that A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man would have to either be "all true" or "all fiction" you surely cannot separate the accurate from the questionable in a Wikipedia entry.
So, let us give a decent burial to the idea that those who consider themselves the best readers in America are actually, effectively, literate. And let's accept that burial as a sign that most of what we know about teaching literacy has been proven completely wrong.
Take these two quotes from today's New York Times article about the latest "memoir hoax": '"I believed the teller," Ms. Hurst [the agent for the book] said. "He was in so many magazines and books and on 'Oprah.' It did not seem like it would not be true."' And, "Susanna Margolis, a New York-based ghost writer who polished Mr. Rosenblat's manuscript, said she was surprised by his description of his first blind date with Ms. Radzicki. "I thought that was far-fetched." she said. "But if somebody comes to you, as an agent and a publisher, and says, 'This is my story,' how do you check it other than to say, 'Did this happen?'"
All those completely fooled by the narratives of Kaayva Viswanathan, Margaret Seltzer, Misha Defonseca, James Frey, and now, Herman Rosenblat, are not just greedy, and they are not just lazy and sloppy. Instead they are tied - by failed or out-of-date educations - to antiquated notions of cognitive authority, and thus antiquated notions of literacy. And because they are tied to these antiquated concepts, they can no longer function in the world.
Agent Andrea Hurst is completely dependent on "publisher" authority. This is the notion that certain sources need not be questioned because of their basic authority. So, if Oprah is the source, "it must be true." You know this theory. You see it in teachers and professors who accept a citation from, say, The New York Times or a book published by Cambridge University but not, say, Wikipedia, or a self-published book.
Susanna Margolis is dependent on the "personal recommendation" authority. Someone she respects sent this author to her, and "how do you check it"? she asks.
Both are, of course, victims of a society that no longer knows how how to interpret fiction, or narrative at all. There is significant evidence that ancient Greeks knew that both their Olympic God myths and their Homeric Legends were both important and fictional (why did Bronze Age warriors fight with Iron Age weapons?). And there is significant evidence, from Creationists to Oprah, that many 21st Century Americans can longer make these intellectual leaps. Those fooled by Herman Rosenblat's concocted Holocaust romance are drawn to 'memoirs' for the same reason many American readers are, they do not read well enough to process the many complexities of narrative without being told in advance that something is (simplistically) "true" or "false."
But these publishing industry leaders also lack basic literacy and knowledge skills. They are victims of the "straight line" reading the National Endowment for the Arts so prizes. I might read Ulysses with a map of old Dublin open here, and a Joyce biography open there, but this kind of 'multi-tasking' is considered 'distracting' and 'dangerous' to many of those who control and teach reading. So no one involved in publishing Angel at the Fence or Love and Consequences or Misha could 'distract' themselves for the four minutes necessary to doubt and look up even the most basic facts.
Might you doubt that - in reality - outsiders could throw gifts to Death Camp inmates over a fence? Or the idea of a girl being raised by wolves? Could you stop and check a high school graduation record? Could you simply put a passage or two into Google to check for plagiarism.
These are among today's basic skills. We need both the ability to understand that "narrative is narrative" - and every bit of every form can be doubted without devaluing it - and the ability to check out what we are learning in order to provide context.
When I read a highly proclaimed "reading study," for example, I investigate who the authors are, looking for the lens they see the world through. But even if the study is highly biased, I still look for observations which I find of value. When I read a novel I still check out what might be 'real' - Gatsby's Valley of the Ashes is a wonderful description of Flushing Meadow in Queens, NY before Robert Moses got his hands on it, and I take in the author's deep cynicism about the "American Dream" without expecting him to be some kind of distinguished social historian.
This is reading fully contextualized into our world. It is not the old blind allegiance to genre or publisher or position in the Dewey Decimal System that formed the knowledge structure of the past two hundred years.
Instead it is a new structure which understands that everyone who tells a story is telling that story from a point of view and for a reason, and a structure which gives us the power, through contemporary technologies, to add those vital contextual clues to our reading.
Narrative is that essential human "thing." And the collection of narratives we absorb builds our sense of the world. Yes, for example, I've read biographies of Huey Long, and I've read Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men, and I've read enough articles about Robert Penn Warren to know that his novel is "half Long and half Mussolini," and I've looked at other histories of Louisiana and FDR - and all construct my knowledge of that moment in American history, and nothing distracts me from the brilliant poetry of Penn Warren's opening chapter as I heard it read on Audiobook, the stanzas built to the rhythm of the tar joints of an old southern highway being traversed at a hundred miles an hour.
How is reading being taught in your school? Is it a disconnected set of skills? Is it divided into "truth" and "untruth" (non-fiction and fiction)? Or is it taught within the contexts of how we can build our knowledge? Is it taught as a "task" (decoding, phonics)? Or is it taught as an intellectual process of joining new information to old questions?
I think reading is a precious thing. I think it is an essential thing. I just wish our schools would recognize why it is precious, why it is essential, and would help our students learn to really read, rather than fumble phonetically in a "fluent" straight line to a simplistic answer, checkable through multiple choice.
- Ira Socol
still struggling with pain-med induced incoherence, but trying to keep my brain going anyway.
- About Ira David Socol
- Freedom Stick and Firefox Accessibility
- The Change.Org Posts
- IdeaChat 11 February 2012
- Counting the Origins of Failure
- Technology: The Wrong Questions and the Right Questions
- Today's "School Reformers" vs Real Change for Education - I
- Today’s “School Reformers” vs Real Change for Education - II
- The Toolbelt and Universal Design - Education For Everyone
- "Evaluate that!" - Schools for Children