You know, you hear this all the time in schools and with parents and teachers, and on the media, and all over the place about this problem that kids can’t read. And I’ve found that for just about everybody, what that means is that there’s some sort of technical disconnect between kids and language. Like, there’s some kind of mechanical problem between kids and words, or something. So, to fix the problem, everybody scrambles, right: Vocabulary! Phonics! Spelling! Grammar! Facts and opinions, informational text, on and on and on testing and classifying every aspect of fundamental linguistics—and in the end, it’s all wrong. It’s all a complete and miserable failure. Kids still can’t read, and adults still can’t figure out what’s wrong. And that’s not because we haven’t fixed the problem; no, it’s because we’re identifying the wrong problem. The problem with reading isn’t a technical disconnect. It is a philosophical disconnect.
And here’s why. If a kid wants to read, then that kid’s gonna learn to read. Paulo Freire proved that already; he taught a bunch of illiterates how to read in a month and a half. We know that. And you know what? It’s not that terribly technical, to be quite honest with you. We acquired the alphabet in the third grade, and for the most part, we speak in sentences. Look, we all use language every day, and very complex language, by the way, and yet somehow everybody still struggles to read. And that’s because, no matter how many words are shoved up a kid’s butt or how proficient a child is in…subject-verb agreement, or whatever, what the problem is is that they don’t understand why people write in the first place, let alone why anyone should read what they’re writing at all. And what I mean by the phrase “students can’t read” is not that they lack the skills, necessarily, because those same skills are developed through the practice of reading, so that’s not the main problem. The problem is, kids aren’t part of the secret club. So, what is the Secret Club? I can boil it down to one single statement: The Secret Club basically means that what you’re reading isn’t really about what it says it’s about, and what it’s saying isn’t really what it’s trying to say. And if you’re a reader or a writer, then you’re supposed to know that.
Now, that doesn’t make any sense at first, so let me give you an example: Let’s take “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss, probably the most instructive text in the English language. I could probably teach any aspect of our language through the context of this book. It’s amazing. But let’s take “Green Eggs and Ham” for sake of example: Now, if you were to read “Green Eggs and Ham”, and you honestly thought that “Green Eggs and Ham” is about whether or not the guy in the hat should eat green eggs and ham, literally, then you didn’t read “Green Eggs and Ham”. It’s that simple. Because that’s not what it’s about. Because Dr. Seuss has an understanding with his readers that this book, what you’re about to read, certainly seems, from every vantage point imaginable, it seems to be about green eggs and ham, but it absolutely isn’t. And readers are expected to know that. There’s an implied understanding between authors and readers, there’s a game, or a code, that writers and readers operate in. Because if “Green Eggs and Ham” was really just about green eggs and ham, plain and simple, then who would read that? What a stupid book. Who would subject a child to that shit? But we all gravitate toward that book because we understand intuitively that it’s about things greater than that which appears on the page. Even children can understand this.
Well, the same goes for just about any other work of writing, even nonfiction. Even nonfiction is full of unstated assumptions and implications and suggestions and omissions! What’s left out is just as important as what’s put in! Both very important.
Here’s another example: There is a poem by John Keats called “Ode to a Grecian Urn”. And it’s pretty much a poem about a guy talking to a jar. And the jar has a Greek painting on it. And the whole poem is this guy mesmerized by the painting on this jar. That’s it. Now, on the surface, what the hell kind of stupid bullshit is that? Who’s been assigning this for hundreds of years, right? Who cares about a jar? And it’s true: if you read “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and you’re expecting to gain some sort of information, or content, then it is unbelievably stupid and useless. And as a reader, you should be very upset for wasting your precious time. But if you understand that even though this poem claims to be about a jar, [but] it really isn’t about a jar, then something happens. You start to open up a little bit. And the speaker in Keats’ poem starts to talk to this jar, and you listen, and after a while, certain things start to happen inside of you. Weird things. Very unsettling things. And suddenly, the world around you starts to look different. And suddenly you don’t quite feel yourself anymore. So you listen to it again, and here he goes again on and on jerking himself off about a jar, but the second time around, you notice things you didn’t notice before, in the poem, and whatever you were feeling before, that strangeness, it intensifies, and intensifies, and keeps intensifying. And suddenly you’re in a zone of complete disorientation, and you have no idea how you got there. And suddenly you don’t feel so good (laughter) and life is very sad. And that’s because John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is fucking brilliant. Because this guy manages to take an empty jar and flip your life upside down with it.
Let’s take another example: Here’s one we might all know from high school probably, um, “The Road Not Taken”, by Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” Ok, so, this poem is about a guy in the woods who gets to a fork in the road and has to choose which way to go. And again, even though the poem is about a fork in the road, it just as equally and just as importantly is not about a guy at a fork in the road. Everything about that poem: the two roads, the yellow wood, the undergrowth, the reasoning for his choice, all of it is code. It’s metaphor. It’s symbolism. There isn’t even a guy in the woods! You know who’s in the woods? YOU! You and me—WE are in the yellow wood, and sorry we cannot travel both and be one traveler. See what I mean?
Okay, last one. Let’s take Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, that famous passage “To be, or not to be…” Look, Shakespeare’s gotten a real bum rap these days because we can’t understand what he’s saying because of the language barrier, and I get that. That’s legitimate. But the fact is, there isn’t a greater example of a literary character that represents our present condition than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Because that whole thing about “To be, or not to be…” there is not a thinking soul on this earth who hasn’t wondered the same exact things that Hamlet is thinking about in that soliloquy. Every single thinking soul that is passing or has passed through this thing we call life has wondered: Why am I here, and why the fuck should I stay? And wouldn’t it be easier to just not? Now, in far more eloquent terms, Hamlet analyzes that question, and it’s probably the most important question of our existence: Why are we here? How did we get here? And what the fuck’s the point? And wouldn’t it be wiser? Wouldn’t it be wiser to just pull the plug now and end it all? Right? Now, Hamlet doesn’t answer that question, and no one has ever answered that question, and no one probably ever will. But it is that question which makes us all human and it is that question which makes this Shakespearean passage perhaps the most important thing anyone ever wrote.
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