… languages recognized, not as the means of contemporary communication but as investments in thought and records of perceptions and analogical understandings; literatures recognized as the contemplative exploration of beliefs, emotions, human characters and relationships in imagined situations, liberated from the confused, cliché ridden, generalized conditions of commonplace life and constituting a world of ideal human expressions inviting neither approval nor disapproval but the exact attention and understanding of those who read …
Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Voice of Liberal Learning,’ p. 23.
In my forthcoming book, Making Meaning in English, I suggest two disciplinary branches of knowledge in English which I’ve dubbed ‘noticing’ and ‘analogising’. Oakeshott’s view of English as requiring ‘exact attention’ and ‘analogical understandings’ provides a way through the thicket of exam technique and assessment objectives that blight much of what the study of English has become. By exploring language as a ‘record of perception’ and an ‘investment in thought,’ and in contemplating literature as the imagined story of humanity in all its aspects, students can begin to amass the tools to hew meaning from the edifice of words with which they are confronted. The study of English requires that we pay attention in particular, specialised ways and, once we have learned to focus, to be able to experience new insights through seeing that what we are attending to has connections to things we have experienced previously.
In this. blog I’ll focus just on the concept of noticing, by which I mean reading and writing whilst being attuned to the choices and effects of everything that language has to offer: punctuation, sounds, diction, syntax, patterns of form, imagery and the ways each of these combines to make narratives and arguments. If we read or write without awareness of the effects of language we are doing so naïvely. If we’re not noticing, we’re likely to see the writer’s choices as merely coincidental and view our own efforts at writing as the product of happy, or unhappy, chance. But if we notice as we read and write then we’re alive to possibilities, able to make informed choices and consider multiple interpretations.
In The American Scholar, Emerson discusses what he refers to as ‘creative reading’. He says,
When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part,—only the authentic utterances of the oracle;—all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakespeare’s.
This is taken up in Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle’s book, This Thing Called Literature. They say,
Creative reading requires a curiosity about the past, an openness to discovering — with irony or delight — how eloquent, perceptive and thought-provoking writing from earlier centuries or decades can be, and how much you thought was new has in fact been (often more eloquently) said or done before. But creative reading can also entail a sense of trepidation and excitement about the future. Reading is an exposure to the unforeseeable. When you are reading a poem, a play, apiece of fiction — no matter how canonical it might be, no matter how many thousands of other people have read it and written about it — this reading is something that is happening only to you, with you, at this moment, for the first time in the history of the world. (p. 18)
They suggest that reading literature (whatever that is) ought to be undertaken with a pen so that you can annotate, underline and make notes. This will help not only to engage with the ideas expressed but to add something of your own; to enter into a conversation with the text. Bennet and Royle warm that failing to annotate can have serious consequences. If you don’t annotate as you read, “you will forget what it was you found interesting or funny or sad or perplexing, and you won’t be able to find those particularly exciting, enticing, intriguing passages or moments again so easily. You may think you will, but you won’t.” I can attest to the truth of this observation.
Teachers, as relative expert readers, can find it difficult to give explicit instructions to novice literary readers on how or what to notice. Sometime, the best we can do is to explicitly model the process and articulate why we are paying attention to particular aspects of texts. Helpfully, Bennett and Royce augment this general advice with some suggestions as to what novice students of literature ought to be looking out for:
- striking phrases, arresting metaphors, unusual wordings;
- significant events or changes in the direction of the narrative;
- the recurrence of a motif, topic or figures that intrigue you (flowers, say, or telephones, or moments of humour);
- moments of self-reflexivity — moments where a text seems to be referring to itself, for example where a poem says something about the poem you are reading or about poetry or language more generally;
- significant alterations in narrative perspective (you might, for example, mark places where you feel that the voice of a a narrator falters or shifts, perhaps by feigning not to know something, or by moving suddenly into the point of view of one or other of the characters);
- significant alterations in temporal perspective (you might mark a flashback or analepsis, a flashforward or prolepsis, the incursion of a scene of memory or the past in the midst of the present, and so on). (p. 17)
These strike me as very useful pointers (and, coincidentally, very much in line with the kind of close reading required for exam success). In a future post I discuss more about how noticing — or creative reading — is also essential in making useful analogies.