First, Tell Me What Kind of Reader You Are
Roy Blount, Jr.
This is an excerpt from an essay first published in the Oxford American.
It appears in its entirety in Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South.
When people of the Northeast ask what I do, I long for one of those professions that would certify me to respond as follows:
“Before I answer that question, I am ethically obliged to inform you that as soon as I do answer, our conversation will be billable at $200 per hour or portion thereof—and the answering of the question itself shall constitute such a portion, as will what I am telling you now, retroactively.”
That would dispense with a lot of idle conversation in which I find myself bogged down in the Northeast.
“What do you do?” people ask.
I say, “I’m a writer.”
And people of the Northeast don’t respond in the way you’d think people would. They don’t say, “I knew a writer once. He could never sit still in a boat,” or “Yeah, that’s about all you look like being, too. What do you do, make it all up, or do the media tell you what to say?” or “Uh-huh, well, I breed ostriches.” I could roll with any one of those responses. One reason there are so many Southern writers is that people of the South either tell a writer things he can use, or they disapprove of him enough to keep his loins girded, or they just nod and shake their heads and leave him to it. But people of the Northeast act like being a writer is normal.
“Oh,” they say with a certain gracious almost-twinkle in their eye, “what kind?”
What am I supposed to say to that? “Living”? “Recovering”? They’ll just respond, “Oh, should I have heard of some of your books?” I don’t know how to answer that question. And I’m damned if I’m going to stand there and start naming off the titles. That’s personal! Can you imagine Flannery O’Connor standing there munching brie on a Ry-Krisp and saying, “Well, there’s The Violent Bear It Away. . . .”
People of the Northeast don’t seem to think it is all that personal. They seem to think that you can find out about books by having a schmooze with the writer, in the same way they might think you can find out about whiskey by chatting up someone in personnel down at the distillery.
What I want to do, when somebody asks me what kind of writer I am, is sull up for several long seconds until I am blue in the face and then, from somewhere way farther back and deeper down than the bottom of my throat, I want to vouchsafe this person an utterance such that the closest thing you could compare it to would be the screech of a freshly damned soul shot through with cricket song and intermittently all but drowned out by the crashing of surf. But I was brought up to be polite.
I was also brought up Methodist and went to graduate school, so I can’t honestly say what I want to say: “Self-taught annunciatory. I received a vision out of this corner, of this eye, at about 7:45 p.m. on January 11, 1949, and since that moment in earthly time I have been an inspired revelational writer from the crown of my hat to the soles of my shoes. And do you want to know the nature of that vision?
“The nature of that vision was a footprint in the side of an edifice, and the heel of it was cloven and the toes of it was twelve. And how could a footprint be in the side of an edifice, you wonder? Especially since I stood alone at the time, stark naked and daubed with orange clay, in a stand of tulip poplar trees some eleven miles outside of Half Dog, Alabama, way off a great ways from the closest man-made structure in any literal subannunciatory sense. That footprint could be in the side of an edifice for one reason and one reason only: because—”
But then they’d just say, “Oh, a Southern writer. What are grits?”
I don’t live in the South anymore. I maintain you can’t live in the South and be a deep-dyed Southern writer. If you live in the South you are just writing about folks, so far as you can tell, and it comes out Southern. For all we know, if you moved West you’d be a Western writer. Whereas, if you live outside the South, you are being a Southern writer either (a) on purpose or (b) because you can’t help it. Which comes to the same thing in the end: you are deep dyed.
Whether or not anybody in the South thinks you are a Southern writer is not a problem. Englishmen thought of Alistair Cooke as an American. Americans thought of him as English. So he was in good shape, as I see it: nobody kept track of whether he went to church. . . .
The language needs a second-person plural, and y’all is manifestly more precise, more mannerly and friendlier than y’uns or you people. When Northerners tell me they have heard Southerners use y’all in the singular, I tell them they lack structural linguistic understanding. And when they ask me to explain grits, I look at them them like an Irishman who’s been asked to explain potatoes.
All too often in the Northeast, writers themselves seem to regard being a writer as normal. When people ask a Northeastern writer what kind he or she is, instead of expostulating, “What do you mean what kind? Getting by the best I can kind! Trying to make some kind of semi-intelligible sense out of the goddamn cosmos kind! If you’re interested, see if you can’t find a way to read something I wrote! If I knew it by heart I would recite the scene in Marry and Burn where the fire ants drive the one-legged boy insane (which I’ll admit I think almost comes up to what it might have been, but it’s not simple enough, there are too many of’s in it; I couldn’t get enough of’s out of it to save my life!); but I don’t carry it around in my head—I was trying to get it out of my head; and even if I did, reciting it wouldn’t do it justice! You have to read it”—a Northeastern writer will natter away about being poststructuralist or something. And everybody’s happy. Writers fitting into the social scheme of things—it don’t seem right to me.
Grits is normal.
Overview | What does it mean to be literate? How do our reading experiences shape who we are? In this lesson, students reflect on a formative reading experience and use it as a springboard for tracing their reading lives by creating timelines to reflect past and present experiences. They culminate the personal reading history project through reading, writing and/or discussion.
Materials | Student journals, handouts
Warm-up | Tell students you are going to lead them through a guided meditation meant to help them recreate an important reading experience in their memory.
Begin by asking them to close their eyes and put their heads down on their desks. Turn the lights down or off. Read this script, giving them a few moments to reflect after each prompt:
Today, we’re going to take a trip back through your life as a reader. In your mind, put aside the reading you’re doing for school and go to a place where you have positive feelings about reading. …
Maybe you are being read to or maybe you are reading yourself. …
Try to settle on a single memory … and dwell in it.
What book is being read? What does it look like? Feel like? Are the pages thick or thin? Are there pictures? What colors and images stand out? What does it smell like? Where did this book come from? How did you happen upon it? Did someone give it to you? Did you borrow it from the library? If you chose it, what attracted you to it?
Now, look around. Where are you? Indoors? Outdoors? Cuddled up on a couch or lying in the grass? Are you comfortable? Are you warm or cold?
How old are you?
Are you alone or with someone else?
How do you feel?
Now listen. Who is reading? A parent? Grandparent? Sibling? Try to remember the voice. Is it quiet or loud? Soft? Animated?
Or, are you reading to or by yourself? What sounds surround you? Are you aware of any as you read? Do you imagine any as you read?
What characters do you meet as you become immersed in the world of the book? Are they like you or different?
Where does the book take you? Is it a real place or an imaginary one? What do you remember about the world of the book?
How do you feel reading this book?
How do you feel when it ends?
Slowly bring yourself back to the present day. What sticks with you still about this reading experience?
Next, turn on the lights and ask students to open their eyes. Then, ask them to open their journals and freewrite about the memory they just experienced, incorporating as much detail as they can recall. If you’d prefer, you can do this exercise with the lights on, having them freewrite as you guide them through the script. In either case, the point is to write to think — assure students their work here will not be collected or graded.
Invite students to share their experiences. Ask: What kind of reading experiences remain etched in your minds? Why are reading experiences powerful influences? What does it means to be “well read”? What reading experiences are considered seminal for educated people? Why? What does it mean to be literate? What is cultural literacy? Information literacy? What other kinds of literacies are there?
Related | In her essay “I Was a Teenage Illiterate,” the novelist Cathleen Schine discusses how she found herself “illiterate” at 26 and explores the reading experiences that shaped her:
At the age of 26, when I returned to New York after an inglorious stab at graduate work in medieval history on the frozen steppes of Chicago, I had a horrifying realization: I was illiterate. At least, I was as close to illiterate as a person with over 20 years of education could possibly be. In my stunted career as a scholar, I’d read promissory notes, papal bulls and guidelines for Inquisitorial interrogation. Dante, too. Boccaccio. . . . But after 1400? Nihil. I felt very, very stupid among my new sophisticated New York friends. I seemed very, very stupid, too. Actually, let’s face it, I was stupid, and it was deeply mortifying, as so many things were in those days. But I have since come to realize that my abject ignorance was really a gift: to be a literarily inclined illiterate at age 26 is one of the most glorious fates that can befall mortal girl.
Read the essay with your class, using the questions below.
Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:
- What exactly does the writer mean when she says she is “illiterate”?
- Who was Dostoyevsky? Why does Ms. Schine blame him for her state of affairs?
- On the other hand, why is she grateful to him?
- What other books have been influential in Ms. Schine’s history as a reader?
- What do you suppose Italo Calvino meant when he said that a work read at a young age and forgotten “leaves its seed in us”? What are some books that have left their seeds in you?
Activity | Explain to students that they will create timelines chronicling their reading history. Lead them through the process of brainstorming and drafting using the handout My History as a Reader (PDF), and then using their drafts to create polished pieces that reflect who they are as readers.
In their final timelines, they should include all types of experiences with reading that have shaped who they are as readers today and illustrate the timeline using meaningful images, such as book cover art for favorite books, photos of characters or readers who have inspired them, elements of locations that they have visited or would like to visit, etc.
When students have finished their timelines, post them around the room and encourage wandering. Ask students to look for and note commonalities in their classmates’ work. You might even hang blank sheets of paper underneath each one so that students can post comments.
Reconvene as a class for discussion. Ask: What reading experiences have been most influential in your life? How were you encouraged and discouraged to become a reader? What did you learn about yourself by creating your timeline? What did you learn about classmates by looking at their timelines? What did your classmates’ timelines make you think about? Do you consider yourself “literate”? Why or why not? By what definition? Is it important to you to be “literate”? Why or why not?
Going further | Here are several ideas for taking this activity further:
- Students use the freewriting they did during the warm-up and their timelines as the basis for crafting short autobiographies of themselves as readers. They might use “I Was a Teenage Illiterate” as a model for their autobiographical essay, starting, as Ms. Schine did, with an assessment of themselves as readers today, then delving into their pasts as readers (using their timelines), discussing formative reading experiences, and finishing with a look forward to their possible futures as readers. Alternatively, they read Chapter 1 of Italo Calvino’s “If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler” and use it as a model for writing about their own reading histories, focused on one book that had a powerful impact on them.
- Students bring in an influential children’s book or excerpt from a novel to share aloud with classmates for a read-around, along with the relevant section of their autobiography.
- Lead a field trip to, or encourage students to visit, your school or local library or bookstore so that students can browse books that interest them. Then, have students create lists imagining their futures as readers. What books do they dream of reading? Why? Encourage them to think about what kinds of literacy they value and build their own personal reading list to reflect those values.
- Circulate a variety of book lists, such as the College Board’s 101 Great Books, the American Library Association Booklists, Listology’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die or one of the “Great Books” lists. As students browse the lists, discuss what kinds of works are included and what or whose values these lists reflect.
- Start an independent reading project in which students undertake one or more of the books they have dreamed of reading.
Standards | From McREL, for grades 6-12:
1. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process
6. Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies for reading a variety of literary texts
7. Uses the general skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts
8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
Life Skills: Working With Others
1. Contributes to the overall effort of a group
4. Displays effective interpersonal communication skills
Arts and Communication
3. Uses critical and creative thinking in various arts and communication settings
4. Understands ways in which the human experience is transmitted and reflected in the arts and communication
5. Knows a range of arts and communication works from various historical and cultural periods
Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.