purposeful thinking while reading

I’m reading Cris Tovani’s Do I Really Have to Teach Reading and wondering how to apply it to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a novel I’m also reading. I’ve taught two of Rushdie’s short stories — “The Courter” and “Chekhov and Zulu.” I like Rushdie’s short stories. But I have yet to get through one novel. I’m reading Midnight’s Children because one of my sisters has just picked it up, and we’ve decided to have a book discussion club of two.

It’s slow reading. Why? I know some of the context. For instance, when the narrator gets to Amritsar in 1919, I know we’ll hear about the Amritsar massacre. But even as I read the fictional rendering, my finger is itching to hit Google and find out more. I resist. I need to keep reading. I haven’t even read forty pages yet, and I tend to read novels fast.

What slows me down? The thickness of the prose. That’s about the only way to put it. Rushdie nods to Austen and Dickens in his introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of Midnight’s Children, and his writing feels more like a combination of 19th century tomes and myth. Thick narrative. Rushdie has written elsewhere about the central importance of A Thousand and One Nights, and the narrator in this novel compares himself to Sheherazade. I’m still not sure what slows me down. And I’m not sure what strategies I’ll be able to employ from Tovani’s book, but I like that I have a text I’m resisting. I can experiment.

I like the start of Tovani’s book — she hooks us with her stories, and we’re with her on the plane as she’s off to lead a workshop, as she wonders how to make a science textbook on viruses relevant even as that reading bores her, as she encounters a bored and rude student.

A few things struck me. This point: “One critical concept embraced by both researchers and literacy specialists is that learning to read doesn’t end in the elementary grades” (5). Seems obvious, eh? But the quote got me thinking that much of what I do is teaching students how to read — in 101, 102, all the 200-level literature classes. I also like the last section of the introduction: No Easy Answers. I like that Tovani acknowledges the complexities and difficulties. Here’s the last sentence of this chapter: “Meaning arrives because we are purposefully engaged in thinking while we read.” I think this is what I need as I read Rushdie’s novel. And it’s the most difficult thing to teach my students, no matter if they’re reading a 17th-century poem by Anne Bradstreet or their peer’s first draft of an argumentative essay. Getting readers to trust their own minds is perhaps my biggest challenge. It’s OK to say, “I don’t understand this,” or “This passage is written in a really confusing way,” or “I really like the way you end your paper.” Getting students to acknowledge that their ideas count, that the most important place for them to start is precisely with their own ideas, their own confusion, their own pleasure — well, this seems to be the biggest challenge. The payoff is that once students know their ideas and their voices count, it’s hard to shut them up.

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