Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Confessions of a Plot Junkie

After reading “What Readers ReallyDo” by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton, I’ve realized that I really don’t understand how to read deeply. Sure, I can identify the theme of some obvious books, such as “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand, a story about an Olympic runner who joins the war effort and is shot down over the Pacific, captured, and lives as a prisoner of war for several unbearable years.

But then again, the theme of that one is in the title.

Most books, I’ve discovered in looking back over my reading journal, I read just for fun. I am what Lucy Calkins calls a “plot junkie”. I rarely read for deeper meaning, to really get at the message the author is trying to send.

One of my friends, upon finding out that I’d also read “Water for Elephants” exclaimed, “Oh! Didn’t you think the Russian elephant being beaten for not following English directions was like the second language students in our schools?”  What??  No! I thought it was a love story.  What else have I been missing?

Now that I’ve read Barnhouse and Vinton’s book, however, I’m determined to turn over a new leaf. Each chapter in their book describes in detail how to teach students to pick up details in the beginning of a new book, how to look for a pattern within a text and infer possible meanings and author’s messages, and how to evaluate a book for its relevance to one’s own life.

So with that in mind, I dove into Yann Martel’s book “Beatrice and Virgil”. He’s the author of “The Life of Pi”, another book I read at a purely surface level and which I plan to reread now that I’m in rehab for plot addiction.

What I found out about this new “reading me” was that I needed to read slower, more intentionally, and with much flipping back and forth of pages to previous elements of a pattern I felt building. I needed to stop and restate in my own words an overview of what was happening and what I felt it meant. It would have been helpful to have a discussion partner at this point.

And what I found was depth. The old me would have abandoned this allegorical book or pushed through only so I wouldn’t have to confess to giving up, but with a scowl on my face while exclaiming, “This book is too weird!” Instead, I found that I was able to determine it was about the Holocaust before the author came right out and told me late in the book. I connected events that the old me would never have realized were related, and I even thought deeply about why the author chose to name the characters as he did.

The next step in my rehab process is to spread the word to others and convince them there’s more to books that just the plot. Of course, perhaps you’re the kind of person who already reads deeply and easily anticipates the author’s intent. Or maybe you’re in denial.

Either way, come on and join me – the first step is admitting we have a problem.


Anonymous said...

I hope it's not too strange writing you, but I stumbled on your blog as I was looking for one written by a teacher I've worked with, and I thought this was just about the best reader feedback a writer could ever get. I've been working on a blog post myself about how we all can deepen our awareness of patterns just by the fact of knowing we might find them, and I'm wondering if you'd be okay with me linking my post to yours since it's such a powerful testament to how we can grow as readers. So think about it and let me know.
Vicki Vinton

Unknown said...

Vicki gave a shout out to this blog post on page 86 of her new book "Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading".

Heather Wall said...

Thanks for pointing that out! To be honest, I've not been back to this post to check the comments and so totally missed yours. I didn't find out that Vicki gave me a shout out until I went to a session of hers at a conference a couple of months ago and mentioned that I'd written a blog post in response to her book, at which point she excitedly told me about it. I immediately bought the book of course, and am devouring it now. Such great thinking in "Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading"! It's exactly what I needed to read right now!