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Reading Between the Lines

Sep 10, 2010 |  David Clemens

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Reading Between the Lines

Sep 10, 2010 | 

David Clemens

Discussing Claude Shannon’s communication theories, my student Hali asked about reading comprehension, and I thought of Bernard Knox (who died July 22).  His New York Times obituary by Wolfgang Saxon reads, in part,

[During World War Two, the O.S.S.] sent [Knox] into northern Italy . . . and it was there that he rekindled his passion for the classics.  Holed up in an abandoned villa, he discovered a bound copy of Virgil and opened it to a section of the first Georgic that begins, 'Here right and wrong are reversed; so many wars in the world, so many faces of evil.' Professor Knox recalled, in Essays Ancient and Modern, 'These lines, written some 30 years before the birth of Christ, expressed, more directly and passionately than any modern statement I knew of, the reality of the world I was living in: the shell-pocked, mine-infested fields, the shattered cities and the starving population of that Italy Virgil so loved, the misery of the whole world at war.’” He continued, 'As we ran and crawled through the rubble I thought to myself: “If I ever get out of this, I’m going back to the classics and study them seriously.” ' ”

Imagine what’s necessary to comprehend this brief, poetic passage.  Besides knowing the definitions of common words, one’s vocabulary must contain uncommon words (“villa,” “rekindled”).   The meaning of the sentences requires understanding the grammatical relationships and punctuation (parenthetical and serial commas, quote within a quote, colon).  Knox’s and Virgil’s imagery and metaphors require imagination.  And comprehension also involves so-called “domain knowledge” (“Virgil,” “Georgic,” “classics”), cultural knowledge and historical consciousness (“O.S.S.,” “bound copy,” "30 years before the birth of Christ"), and the multiculturalism-free notions of “evil” and “right and wrong.” Mark Bauerlein (among others) argues here that reading is neither a transferable skill nor really testable because “all texts contain embedded assumptions, things the writer assumes the reader will know.”  Despite massive growth in college developmental (i.e., remedial) reading programs, it seems that only grammar and decoding are teachable; deep reading involves complex acrobatics including knowledge that fewer and fewer students possess.  As Michael Silverblatt says here, reading classes can teach “effective word recognition, but reading isn't done with just the eyes, or the eyes and the lips, it's done with the mind.”

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