Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award

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How can there be such a thing as a bad reader?

A student asked me the question last week. I gave a brief answer: “Reading’s a skill. There are ways of measuring any skill.”

The student wasn’t satisfied with this answer, so we had a long discussion about it in office hours. People should be allowed to read as they see fit, the student insisted. This defensive position always fascinates me. No one is keeping anyone from reading or not reading. Where’s the tyrant out there telling us to understand things one way but not another, or to have one brand of fun one way all the time?

Philosophy aside, what do we measure when we measure reading skills? And what do the skills we measure have to do with what writers like myself want, which is for more people to enjoy reading, to allow it to provoke them, to change their point of view? Aren’t we dumping shit on someone’s brain when we tell them, “If you become a better reader, you’ll get more out of reading.” Leave me alone, they’ll say; I’ve got one life to live.

I loathe reading tests, standardized or otherwise, although I’ll admit having both used and devised them. Generally, I think we teachers do our students the best service when we teach one thing when it comes to reading:

There are so many ways to approach a text, but for purposes of clarity, let’s divide them into two basic methods. The first approaches a text expecting it to be and do something. The second approaches a text to investigate what it’s doing and how. The second method will leave a reader open to a wider variety of texts; the reader will learn much more from them, no matter what they are, and practice flexing the mind. The first approach leaves a reader disappointed most of the time.

I’ll note that these methods, which are really states of mind, extend to much more than reading. If you go to a beach expecting sand and sun, you’ll be disappointed when you find rocks and wind. But if you go to the beach to see what it’s like, you’ll see the rocks and feel the wind. That’s to say, we don’t allow ourselves to experience what we dismiss. So often, we’re the tyrant in the way of our experience, but we’ll blame the beach for being rocky, or the person who hung a sign at the top of the pathway: “Beach, this way.”

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The myth of independence

You are not independent, no matter what you do. You might break away from the king, but you will immediately find yourself dependent on some other force, if even on the fellow revolutionaries who helped you kill the king and now want to build a society. Perhaps you did not notice how dependent you have always been on the dead. They built your city. They invented your culture. They gave birth to the king you killed.

People get angry with me for pointing this out. I often get a lot of resistance from students when I bring this question up during discussions: is independence a myth? (Yes, it’s rhetorical and loaded.)  They claim they are in college in order to achieve independence. But all the occupations they can possibly train for depend on work with and for others, and on a society that supports every kind of activity. Forget about work. In the modern city, it is impossible to support oneself without a store. You cannot grow enough food to feed yourself for the whole year, even if you have a sizable garden. During stretches of the year, you will depend on food from some other place, and on the people who bring it to you. Then, to buy it, you’ll depend either on customers supporting your business, or on the proper management of your place of employment. Most of these relationships are out of your control. You can influence some of them to lean one way or another. But you are not ever independent. If you believe that you are making money because of your superior ability to trick people into buying your services, you’re dependent on a delusion far more tragic than independence.

Even in Walden, Thoreau’s book about self-reliance, he depended on tools built by others, clothing sewn by someone else, a political system held up by a massive group of people, most of whom he did not know.

Many of us will attend a fireworks display. We will depend on someone to pick up the garbage that falls from the sky after the bombs go off. If those people don’t do it, we’ll complain to the authorities: What the hell? Can’t we depend on anyone anymore?

We depend on each other. Constantly. A revolution in Egypt has consequences in Kansas.

On independence day, let’s pledge to be dependable.