Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How to Read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

The American education system is more than proficient in teaching literacy. In just a few generations, we have created a society with essentially universal literacy. Not every American student receives the same quality of education and not every American student gets to the end of their formal education with the same level of literacy skills, but the vast majority of Americans have enough basic literacy skills to fill out job applications and read road signs and menus. But literacy is not reading and the skills it takes to extract meaning from a menu can be very different from the skills it takes to extract meaning from a novel, poem, essay, or story. Unfortunately, though the structure of our schools is clearly great for literacy, its very nature prevents it, on a structural level, from teaching some, if not many, of the skills reading requires.

Before going much further, I should add, that some individual teachers (maybe even many individual teachers) do find ways to teach reading within the structure of the system. Many of us are lucky enough to come out the other side of high school or college with both a love of reading, and the skills we need to get the most out of a wide variety of books and literature. The problem is that not all books fit well into the testing and standards structure of our system. It is relatively easy to extract test questions out of books with Aristotelian plot arcs, accessible prose, a stable conflict through the story, and/or a few relatively overt themes and symbols. Such books have “correct” answers that teachers (or whoever it is that creates “standards”) can reasonably expect their students to ascertain on a first reading and in a short amount of time. There are, of course, many great books that meet these qualifications; (and some great books that appear to enough to be taught even though a lot of weirdness hides under the surface, Edgar Allen Poe, I'm looking at you.) The Great Gatsby springs to mind, but they certainly don't represent all great books. Just as knowing the skills of baseball won't necessarily make you able to play cricket, having the skills to read the kinds of books taught school won't necessarily help you read the discursive, tangential, stylistically challenging, thematically wandering, structurally experimental books, stories, and poems that have been enriching, deepening, pushing, and challenging human expression for millenia. When Ron Charles half jokes that Bailey Prize winning novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimer McBride, will be enjoyed by “dozens” of readers, he is essentially commenting on how few readers get to the end of their reading educations with the right skills to read it. As with our baseball player struggling with a wicked googly, this isn't about the intelligence of readers, but about skill sets.

So, to the best of my ability, here are the techniques and perspectives (because this is as much about what you read for as it is how you read) you need to read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. (Because you should read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.)

Give It Time: How many of the best meals in your life involved a lot of slow processes? If you're a fan of BBQ or stews or pickles or beer, or, well, nearly anything delicious, odds are, at some point, there was a step in the preparation process that took a bit of time. Books can be like that too. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing takes it's time to build up to something (perhaps reflecting the narrator's growing awareness, but this is not the post for interpretation). And you need to give it that time, that room to develop, to grow, to absorb the rich, smoky, flavor of your attention. OK, went a little BBQ on you there at the end, but the point remains. Though many great books hook you, not all do. For some (thinking specifically of Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury (and even Lolita as its oft-quoted first line is not in fact, the first line of the novel. The first line of Lolita is “'Lolita, or the confession of a White Widowed Male' such were the two titles under which the writer of the present note received the strange pages it preambulates” is. “Preambulates?” “Widowed?” I'm barely going to stop myself from discoursing on the brilliance of that. Barely.) but I'm sure there are others) the act of “hooking” might actually compromise a reader's ability to full experience the story. So, don't be worried if you're not “hooked” by A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. It's not trying to hook you. Just be patient.

Moments Like Paper Boats in a Flood: In case you think its just scattered thoughts, McBride inserts crystalline images and moments that remind you, there is an author here, with a controlled project, who is intentionally guiding the apparently chaotic flow of words and images. These moments don't happen every page, or every other page, or even every chapter, but they happen and they are vital to keeping your brain in “literature mode.” Oh, they're also beautiful and brilliant and you don't want miss beautiful brilliance no matter what other structural and narrative purposes it might serve.

It Is OK To Be Hurt by a Book: Actually it is powerful and important and empowering to be hurt by a book. It is a gift to be hurt by a book. It is proof of humanity to be hurt by a book. Being hurt by a book opens a part of yourself that you need to see. You need to know what hurts you. You need to know how you respond to being hurt. You also need to know what doesn't hurt you, what you think should hurt, but doesn't. And you need to know what “hurt” actually feels like, what the content of it is and how book hurt is different from life hurt. A lot of readers will be uncomfortable with the story's events. Many will be hurt. Be grateful when A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing hurts you.

Let It Go: Sorry to go all Frozen on you, but let it go. This book will not answer test questions. Who is she talking about now, are they still on the bus, is she talking or thinking, wait did her mother say that....Let it go. You will sometimes not know what the narrator is talking about. Let it go. You will sometimes not know if the narrator is talking or thinking. Let it go. You won't be able to pass a pop quiz in the morning, you won't be able to write a two paragraph essay on the source of conflict, and you won't be able to identify the climax. (If there is one.) Let it go. Too often, rather than learning to read, we learn to pass literature tests, and just like there are many brilliant minds that don't test well, there are many brilliant books that don't test well. Let it go. You get through your life without knowing what's going on every second of it; you'll get through A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing the same way.

You'll flounder. You'll struggle. You'll have more passages of confusion than moments of enlightenment. You will wonder how and why anybody can do what was done. You will not know what's going on. But you'll also totally get it even if you can't describe how you get it. Something will stick in your brain and even though the source of that something is made of words, that something will not be made of words and so will just sit there. You will feel a different rhythm of percolation in your own stream of consciousness. And there will be moments that mean nothing to everyone else and something to you, and it's important to have those moments, and I don't think you get enough of those moments in books that test well.

Whenever I write a piece that explores how and what we should read, I feel like there is an implied “so what?” hovering over the piece. So what if most people aren't reading this particular swath of human expression. So what if many, if not most of us, get to the end of our formal education without the tools needed for certain kinds of books. I mean, would we cure cancer if everyone already knew how to read books like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing? Would we end poverty or war? Would we prevent human driven climate change?

You know, what, yes. We would. Or maybe not those exact problems and probably not all of them, but our problem solving ability, especially given how abstract our massive and interconnected human society is, is contingent on our ability to grapple with distant consequences, assess the value of abstract concepts, critically examine (sometimes even deconstruct) information and media, and imagine solutions outside our vestigial systems of decision-making. In short, the same skills needed to read totally-out-there books like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

This sounds grandiose, of course, but everything, absolutely everything, is built on decisions made by people and those decisions were built on the memories, emotions, experiences, opinions, and reading skills of the people and limitations in any of those capacities, whether evolved over the course of human history or created idiosyncratically in the individual's environment, limit the decisions. To put this another way, I believe you learn how to make better decisions, and thus, be a better person, by learning how to read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment