Blame it on Yuval Noah Harari. Knocking around in my head this weekend was the phrase reading with understanding. When you look it up, most of the references are “reading for understanding”. There is a difference. I don’t know how I was taught to read, what was home, what was school. In spite of my parents’ ages (they were in their forties when I was born) there was no friction between home and school and there might have been. There are fashions in education as in everything else. Dare I say that I think that the method is less important than its coherence ? Heaven knows education has been subject to continued upheaval and changing the method while children were still learning seemed worse than unkind, frankly upsetting. After a cursory glance through stuff on styles of learning to read, I have profound gratitude to everybody concerned. That is to say, nobody stopped me reading ever. And it is still my abiding pleasure, as much as people, more than film.
I don’t understand aerodynamics but I once listened to the founder of an airline Freddie Laker talk about it and understood a little more. The key to that sentence is “listened.” If I had read what he was saying, I wouldn’t have understood a word. And I still couldn’t fly a plane.
More seriously I very much admire Daniel Kahneman whom I have had the pleasure of hearing speak a bit thank heaven because I can’t read “Thinking, Fast and Slow “ his international best seller with retention let alone understanding. I keep it and I will try again. While at the behest of a friend, I bought “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari, reading 54 pages without understanding or retention. Yet reading a short interview with him in the Sunday Times this weekend, I thought I must try again.
The first time I was aware of reading without understanding was a book called “Between Silk and Cyanide” (subtitled A Codemaker’s War, 1941-1945) by Leo Marks. Some time ago the BBC made a series about the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in different countries in Europe. I had learned the poem Leo Marks wrote for Violette Szabo when I was 12 and had seen a film called “Carve Her Name With Pride”. The story is moving. My head doesn’t do cryptography. So I committed to following “the narrative drive” ie the storytelling and let my eyes run through the pages on the codes without getting bogged down and losing the impetus of the story. It was quite a learning curve for someone who was brought up that if you don’t understand, you go back and re-read. I couldn’t give up on the story, I had to find a way round the other bits.
I don’t think I can do that with Kahneman or Harari. They only tell stories incidentally. Both academics, they write to portray densely reasoned, what I would call “ knitted” issue, through walls of words. Sadly the walls don’t invite me in. I shall have to look for another way.
The texture of writing is like the texture of food. Sometimes you like it, sometimes you don’t. Unless you are starving you can push food aside. When it eludes you, writing has to be pushed aside or renegotiated. One of the key words in all this is “story”.
Sometime ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Schlosser, writer of a best seller about the industrialisation of American food production (“Fast Food Nation”). When he and his co writer had done that, they hauled off and rewrote it for younger eyes. I respected that. Schlosser also wrote a tiny Penguin monograph on a side of the US you never hear about called “Gods of Iron” and then I found Command and Control, his Pulitzer submitted major work on the US nuclear position, part history, part story, wholly chilling and read the lot. So there must be more to this than subject matter. I am not an elitist. I believe in the accessibility of information and I was and am inspired by the name of a collection of radio pieces which plays on an old Jewish joke asking rhetorically why God had such patience with humans. And the answer is the title: “Because He Loved Stories”. Tell me the story, I’ll get there, too important to miss.