Tag Archives: reading

Reading while teaching; Teaching what you read


If you do an image search for ‘teaching’ and ‘reading’ (as I just did), you get lots of pictures of the quote “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” So you modify your search terms (because who wants a treacle quote to being their blog post) to “teaching english university” and you get pictures of lecture halls and students with their hands raised. Because that’s what teaching looks like (on Google at least): a classroom with a teacher, students and some kind of learning going on (hopefully). What you don’t find when you do an image search is a picture of the teacher (me) buried in articles, reference books and webpages frantically preparing for a class. And not reading other things. And making my book club read a book I’ve already read so that I don’t have to read something new. And placing books on hold at the library for the winter break when I’ve promised myself a reward of reading all the things I’ve wanted to be reading, but haven’t had the time to (or more properly the reading energy – more on that to come).

In my more desperate moments I convince myself I haven’t read anything since September. Untrue! I’ve reread the novels assigned for the course (The Book of NegroesIndian Horse and In the Skin of a Lion) and read dozens of texts surrounding these novels (and I read a collection of essays on motherhood *The M Word* before bed, but I didn’t blog about it because essays and I just didn’t). Surely this preparatory work ‘counts’ as reading?

Why then, when I’m teaching what I read, does it not feel like reading? It’s not quite that it feels like work (though it *is* work), it’s more that it feels like their are two tracks of running simultaneously: the reader and the teacher. The reader-me is paying attention to formal elements, to the experience of reading, to making connections. The teacher-me is paying attention to passages that might be included in a lecture or on an exam, to anticipating questions from students, to imagining how to present complex ideas in ways that will be engaging and enriching. It takes energy – “reading energy” – to read on these two tracks.

I probably sound like I’m complaining; I’m not complaining. Much of the time it’s exciting to be doing this work. To plan lessons that will invite students to analyze and to support their enthusiasm for reading (and they are brilliantly engaged and lively students). Some of the time it’s exhausting and frustrating. All of the time it’s a privilege: to be in the classroom, to work with the students, to have the opportunity to teach.

The real effect though is to limit my reading energy for books outside of what I’m teaching. Is it that I’m getting older and just don’t have the same energy? Because in my PhD I read for ‘work’ and then I read for ‘not-work.’ I did the 100 book challenge in the year I wrote my dissertation! So what is it about *teaching* what I read that, for me, makes it so much harder to eek out the time/energy to read-for-me?

As I consider whether to teach again next semester (or ever again!), I place high on my pro/con list the loss of reading-for-me.  To help me decide, my analytic-minded partner, S., generated a spreadsheet ranking different pro’s and con’s. When asked how much it mattered to me whether I had energy to read other things, I ranked it the highest as a con for teaching. I miss one-track reading.

So I’ve started reading something just for me. I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s *My Brilliant Friend* with S. (the other S. – my brilliant friend, S.). I’m hoping that in what remains of the semester I can find a pace that lets me read this way. And if I can’t? What do I do? Blog-readers-who-are-also-teachers: what do you do? How do you create the space for different ways of reading? Teach me your ways.


1 Comment

Filed under Book Club

All My Puny Sorrows: What Do We Mean When We Say “A National Conversation” (About Assisted Suicide and Mental Illness)?

Screen-Shot-2012-10-15-at-13.38.53You’ve heard it before. The refrain that “it’s time to have a national conversation about _______.” The call from pundits, activists and politicians to engage the nation in a discussion about race, or poverty, or legalizing marijuana, or smoking, or texting-while-driving. Or assisted suicide. What is less often said is what we mean when we say “a national conversation.”

Imagine it. Imagine the nation (once you’ve sorted out what you mean by that) engaged in a conversation. How would it happen? Where would it happen? Who would be invited to bring their voice and their perspective? How would it shift beyond you presenting your point of view, me presenting mine a little bit louder, you returning with yours, louder still? How, in an era of social media feeds filled with identical opinions to our own, would we ever escape our own existing political and social persuasions? With the decline (disappearance?) of shared, public social spaces that invite the free interaction of people of different social, political and economic backgrounds, how do we have a national conversation beyond the echo chamber of ourselves?

Oh I know you’ve already sorted it out. You’ve realized this is a book blog and I’m an earnest (if irritatingly one-tuned) champion for the power of novels to make our individual and collective lives better. Yep. I think one of the few ways we have a national conversation about a particular subject is to read about it in a shared literature. And then talk about it with friends, at book clubs, in libraries and with strangers.

Picture me: I’ve just finished Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows. It’s a book about sisters, art, love, mental illness and assisted suicide. Our protagonist, Yolandi, summarizes the central problem of the novel:”She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” In effect her sister, Elf, wants to die, and Yolandi wants to stop her from dying (or to make her want to live) (and these two things are different). Until Yolandi isn’t sure if she wants to stop her, or to make her. Maybe she wants to honour Elf’s deep, desperate, sincere and considered desire to end her life.

So I’ve just finished the book and I’m feeling very much like this is a book I need to talk about. And I’m in a bakery in little town and the woman behind the counter notices I’m carrying a book. She asks me about it, and I tell her “meh, it’s just okay, but I just finished an incredible book, All My Puny Sorrows, about [see the summary above]”. And we spend ten minutes (not that long really, but long enough – try it) talking about the central problem of the novel. She presents her view – one shaped by a Christian faith, her own experience with anxiety and a concern about abuse. I present mine – deep confusion, worry that ‘allowing’ assisted suicide for mental illness entrenches ideas of mental illness as an irrecoverable state, a committed belief in the importance of respecting individual’s choices (and, indeed, contributing to contexts where individuals might make their own choices). We talk and we listen and neither of us leave the conversation any more sure about anything.

I admit this experience is rare. Short of teaching novels (ah! another way we have a national conversation: the classroom!), I don’t often go around talking to other people about the books I’m reading (okay, you’re right, this blog definitely counts as me talking to other people about the books I’m reading). But I can’t put it any other way: All My Puny Sorrows demands discussion.

It is not an easy book. Other reviews have pointed out moments of humour, but I admit I missed these – or perhaps I just didn’t recognize them as moments of levity – caught up as I was in the… impossible (perplexing seems too small a word) experience of Elf, Yolandi and their family. I suppose the closest approximate to its humour would be the viral comedy set by Tig Notaro that layers tragedy upon tragedy until the sheer weight of the suffering can only be hilarious because otherwise would be to succumb.

Of course I’m reducing the book by saying it’s about assisted suicide and mental illness. It’s about a whole lot more. Questions of familial loyalty (what would you be willing to give for your family member?), the relationship between art/genius and suffering (that old trope), the ‘treatment’ (both in the clinical sense and the representational) of mental illness. The affiliative (friends, brothers-in-law and lovers) and filiative (sisters, mothers, father) relationships that not only shape our identity, but gather up the pieces of it in both hands and sort of cluster-squeeze us back together when we crumble apart.

One of the other questions that threads the novel is to what extent we inherit our suffering. The novel does not dispute the inheritance of mental illness, but it asks a different kind of question about inheritance of suffering. Instead of associating suffering in a one-to-one relationship with mental illness, the novel asks whether the psychological and physical pain of mental illness might be one kind of suffering that is passed on through genes, while another sort of suffering – that of loneliness, or alienation, or loss – might be another kind of suffering we – inadvertently – give to our children. The suffering in this novel is, then, both related to mental illness and much larger than mental illness. It is much larger than Elf, and lived by the other characters. It acknowledges and creates space for Yolandi’s suffering, her mother’s, Elf’s husband, and ours as readers.

It becomes a question then of when we – you and me as individuals – find our suffering (whatever its cause) to be so great that we do not want to live with it any longer. The novel asks us to stop and fully consider: What do we owe one another in these moments – these enduring moments that become a lifetime?

Miriam Toews has brought a compelling voice to the national conversation about assisted suicide. As we head into a federal election, we’re presented with another occasion to engage in national conversations. We can use elections as an opportunity to ask ourselves and our neighbours about what we want for and from our national government, and what we are willing to do and give to make this happen. You could do worse than to read All My Puny Sorrows and then talk to someone else about it. We might just end up having a national conversation.


Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

Higher Ed: Bulimia isn’t the worst part


Tessa McWatt beat me to the novel I haven’t written in Higher Ed. The novel takes up the current state of higher education in Britain (to be fair, I’d write the novel about Canadian higher ed, so perhaps there’s still a market – not). Through the interwoven narratives of five characters – the administrator, the film professor, the waiter, the law student and the civil servant – the novel explores the way we live in alienated, precarious and exhausted existences and how we might live otherwise.

Metaphors work to give contour to this exploration. Our administrator, Francine, works as a Quality Assurance officer at the University, helping programs through the absurd and demeaning process of justifying their existence by way of forms, counts, assessment checks and more forms. Francine, our character-stand-in for the university itself, has a distorted self image and bulimic practices. She wants to be ever trimmer, ever more efficient, to see herself, and more importantly to be seen by others, as successful. Yet, as any bulimic would know, in the attempt to purge, all she succeeds in doing is wasting energy on what isn’t important (and getting – ironically – bloated in the process). She sells out her ideals (and her body) to get ahead, only to discover that in the process of proving her worth to others she’s forgotten her own sense of self and priorities. Read the last paragraph again replacing “she” with “the university” and you see how the metaphor works in the novel.

Enter the civil servant who works disposing of the forgotten or “lonely dead,” those who have no one but the state on which to rely when they die. The civil servant, Ed, works with his once estranged daughter, the law student, Olivia, to bring some kind of meaning to these sanitized and bureaucratic deaths complete with mass graves and – again – forms. Their attempts at meaning take the shape we all recognize as meaning-makers: song, storytelling and poetry. As the two characters make this lone and ultimately futile (like life, the novel poses) effort, they deepen their relationship and come to trust and rely on one another. Pitted against the horror of the forgotten, lonely, death this quickening of a relationship is meant – I suspect – to offer us some hope and solace.

And there’s the crux. The novel suggests we live and function among cold and uncaring bureaucracies that are driven by profit and absent either individual or community. Yet, against these efficiency efforts the novel offers budding relationships and clumsy romance. As if to say we may have forgotten how to reach out to one another, how to use poetry to understanding our humanity and how to speak to one another in words not in text(s), but we are not so far gone that we can’t try to, maybe, hazard the attempt at, remembering and connecting.

In other words it’s not an overly optimistic or heartwarming story. Instead, as a sort-of administrator in higher ed myself, I find the call for connection, for real conversation, for extended empathy as at one and the same time entirely appealing and utterly insufficient. We live in the tragic gap, says Parker Palmer, between the reality we recognize and the reality we imagine as possible. In this novel we sit precisely in that space between what the university (what our society) is– profit driven – and what it could be – people driven. And from this gap we’re meant to both witness and imagine. If only we had a way to do that. Oh wait, we do: we can read.


Filed under Book Club, British literature, Canadian Literature, Fiction

An Unnecessary Woman: Books Break Barriers (and other reflections on why we read)

Boy-reading-newspaper-New-001The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is in the middle of its annual “Canada Reads” competition to pick a book all Canadians should read. This year the contest focuses on books that break barriers. Sure, I think, encourage people to read books that might challenge their assumptions and invite an alternative perspective. Except I sort of think this invitation to burst or break (such violent language for such a gentle activity: or is it?) is what all fiction is about, what all reading is for: the space to inhabit perspectives in ways that make you examine (if not *break*) those assumptions you hold that keep others at a distance, or to simply (simply?) travel an unknown story as more than a tourist, but less than a local.

Certainly Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman explores how reading creates this space of exploration. In a powerful passage on the nature of evil, our narrator foregrounds the responsibility that comes with reading, noting “We all try to explain away the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib or the Sabra Massacre by denying that we could ever do anything so horrible. The committers of those crimes are evil, other, bad apples; something in the German or American psyche makes their people susceptible to following orders, drinking the grape Kool-Aid, killing indiscriminately. You believe that you’re the one person who wouldn’t have delivered the electric shocks in the Milgram experiment because those who did must have been emotionally abused by their parents, or had domineering fathers, or were dumped by their spouses. Anything that makes them different from you. When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved” (100 – emphasis added). Yep, that’s it (for me), that’s why I read (or one of the big reasons).

More than an opportunity for introverted exploration, however, the book posits that reading might be enough to make a meaningful life. Our first person protagonist, Aaliya, is a divorcee in Beirut. Deemed “unnecessary” by her family, she takes a job in a bookshop and spends her life reading during the day and translating – from translations – one book a year into Arabic.

[An aside: Beirut is cast as a complex character in the novel, seen as “the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is” (88). An aside to the aside: you get a sense from these sentences of the beauty of the writing, right?]

Her work of reading and translating attempts a response to the existential question of what makes a life meaningful and worth living. We get glimpses at different points in the novel of others for whom this question has not been satisfactorily resolved: suicides, isolation, destruction. Those, too, for whom the task of making meaning – through the creation of art or parenting, for instance – is insufficient to satisfy the existential question (cue more suicide). For Aaliya the response of reading and translating, while salutary, is, likewise, insufficient. She thinks “Nothing in my life is working. Giants of literature, philosophy and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life? I remain a speck in a tumultuous universe that has little concern for me. I am no more than dust, a mote – dust to dust. I am a blade of grass upon which the stormtrooper’s boot stomps” (159).

The conflict of the book – such as it is – focuses around this question: how can we individually make meaning of our lives? How might reading and stories help us in this pursuit? (Perhaps its as Aaliya suggests in one of her bleaker moments that “In order to live, I have to blind myself to my infinitesimal dimensions in this infinite universe” (277).)  So while there is this quasi-conflict, one complaint I have with the book is that it’s more a meditation on the beauty, power and influence of reading than it is a complete narrative on its own. Sure there’s a narrative arc, conflict and character development, but these elements seem a secondary interest to the purpose of exploring the magic of words. So I’d give the strong caveat that while I encourage you to read this one for its masterful meditation on the importance of reading and of story, I’d begin reading with lowered expectations for a nuanced or intrinsically satisfying narrative.

1 Comment

Filed under Booker Prize, Fiction, Prize Winner