On learning to read again

“Has it ever occurred to you,” he said, “that the whole history of English poetry has been determined by the fact that the English language lacks rhymes?” (Orwell, 1984)

Do you remember learning to read? Do you remember the joy of having a book in your hands for the first time, of learning what you enjoy and cultivating a voracious appetite to find more of it?

I was fortunate enough to have that experience in three different languages, and I’m writing this to try to sell it as an experience in an age where smaller and smaller percentages of English speaking people are learning foreign languages to a high level.

There’s been a lot of chatter about the utility of learning a foreign language now that English is increasingly becoming established as the lingua franca of the world. Why bother, goes the refrain, when soon machines will be able to translate every written word for you and put it in a language you actually understand?

There’s a point there somewhere, but I fear it misses an even bigger one. It misses the notion that if you offered me my time again, offered to take away the hours of frustration, of feeling as if I’d never quite ‘get it’, offered to let me spend my time mastering another skill that might be more useful to my future, I’d politely suggest you keep on walking.

And let me tell you why, with as few hairs on my tongue as I am able to manage.

Well, first, there’s that. That neat little clause above just means something along the lines of ‘as straightforwardly as possible’ in Spanish, but isn’t it a much more interesting way to express that sentiment? And every single language has thousands of those little idiosyncrasies, and we have literature written in hundreds of languages. What a waste it would be to see all those options reduced to whatever some translator decided was its closest approximation in English. No two languages use the same idioms, the same phraseology, even the same thoughts, and to think you can condense them down to one vocabulary set like some form of Newspeak is folly.

But that’s just the practicality, and speaks little to the actual experience of reading, or indeed learning to read, in another language.

I picked up my first serious book in Spanish aged 17, in preparation for the college admissions process. I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember the experience.

Immediately I became a toddler again, stumbling around confused having been handed a book that was well beyond my reading comprehension. You think you know a language, when you’re at school, when you can reasonably confidently discuss the current political climate in the target country with your classmates, but you don’t know a damn thing. Nothing prepares you for when a writer sends you sprawling for answers, for the meaning and context behind their words that are taking you completely out of your frame of reference. It’s a lived experience, and you’ll never be ready for Don Quixote, or Madame Bovary, or Faust; you simply have to let them wash over you. It’s just one of those things, you presume comfort in another language until you come across someone who’s a true master of it, someone who can play with your expectations and at the last minute pull back the curtain and reveal something completely unforeseen. It can be maddening to learn just how far you are away from that as a reader.

Having said that, do it.

If you’re even beginning to learn a language and have basic reading comprehension, go grab some books and get to work on them. The experience is different at first, but no less rewarding than doing it in English. Every other word will send you to the dictionary, and you’ll get frustrated at the lack of context, at not understanding the nuance of a phrase, of feeling as if you’re exploring an alien world, but all of that is part of the reward when it finally clicks.

You’ll experience a whole different frame of cultural cues, of reference points, of humor, which makes all of it so worthwhile. They say you have a different personality when you speak another language, and you read differently too, you find different things funny, and you learn a whole new side to yourself of which you may not even have been aware.

Some of it you can read without even that much effort. Kafka, for example, is well known for his relatively simple language amidst the infuriating bureaucracy of his works. You’re reading the same thing, but there’s just something almost imperceptibly different that makes it all the sweeter.

And all that is to say nothing of the forms themselves. Take poetry, as just one example. Haikus have translated into English from the Japanese tradition because of their relative simplicity, but there’s a whole encyclopaedia of ways of writing out there that, as Orwell noted, English simply can’t accomplish because of the relative scarcity of rhyming words. The Romance languages have these in abundance, and they are evidenced and deployed masterfully from the traditional Spanish ballad, to the French alexandrine, to the terza rima of Dante’s Divine Comedy. That’s just the languages closest to home too, there’s a whole new world out there in less familiar languages, from the complex Arabic tradition to the interesting things that can be done with the tonal variations in Mandarin.

I’m not exactly sure what I wanted to say in conclusion, other than a plea that we not limit ourselves to what is easy. There are utilitarian reasons to learn languages, and there are similar reasons not to do so, but to limit oneself to reading only in one language forever simply because it is easier than branching out is to deny oneself a great deal of pleasure. My favorite book is Dom Casmurro, by Brazilian author Machado de Assis; not one I would ever have discovered or even experienced in the same way without the good fortune of having learned Portuguese. So next time you get the urge to give up when reading in a foreign language, persevere, I promise it’s worth it in the end.

 

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The Climb

It came from a seed alone
a small, pathetic seed
that happened
to fall
in the right
insignificant
patch of dirt.

And then it grew.

Slowly at first,
Emergent roots, digging down,
chutes peeping through the topsoil
fighting their way
towards the light,
blazing a path towards the sky.

And so it grew.

Branches, leaves,
inching higher, wider,
expanding.
Carving a place for itself
from thin air,
until nothing could hope
to challenge it.

And so it was grown.

But the tree grew old, inert,
and new threats came.
A vine, one morning,
until that day downtrodden,
ground dwelling,
found its way to the tree
and used it.
Used the work the giant had done
to pull itself
up.
Before the vine had been weak,
now it stole the strength to lift itself,
to scale the heights
of the tree that
came before it.

And so it grew,

climbing and binding
and squeezing,
suffocating,
wrapping itself tighter and tighter
and tighter
pushing itself upwards,
squeezing the life from the tree
until
it could no longer breathe.

And so it was grown.

And years later, the vine remained,
decorating, desecrating
the skeleton
of she that had
blazed the trail.

The Siege

The mother laid her son to rest,
As she did every night.
Perhaps so far the toughest test
In her tortuous plight.

The bombs they fell with shrieking fire,
Amongst her dearest friends.
A situation ever dire,
Without an easy end.

Tonight was different, she knew;
Her soul began to crack.
His lips had turned a frozen blue,
He wasn’t coming back.
The fight for them was good and true,
Now husband, sons she lacked.

What Makes Art High Brow?

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I was listening to James O’Brien on LBC this morning and, inspired by Dylan’s Nobel Prize win, asked the interesting question of ‘what makes art high brow’?

Tragically, I didn’t have time to ring in, so I thought I’d summarise my thoughts here. I’m woefully ignorant on the matter of art in terms of painting and the visual arts, so I’m going to stick to the written word here.

First of all, a quick word on Dylan’s win. It’s been dismissed by some as an insult to novelists who create whole philosophical worlds, and I get that, I do. It’s much more of an effort to create a layered world with multi-faceted characters and an interesting plot than it is to write a poem. But that does not mean that a poem cannot have the same impact on a person as that novel. For example, the piece of literature that most sticks with me is Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘The Hero’, despite the plethora of fascinating novels I have read.

So a poem can be as socially powerful as a novel, and Dylan is certainly a poet. Poetry evolved from song, not the other way around. The first western poetry was The Iliad and The Odyssey; songs sung at banquets which are now seen as the highest of high brow. This evolved through Europe with wandering troubadours singing lyric poetry through the 13th century before anyone was writing poetry to be read on the page. The very reason poetry has rhyme and rhythm is to  make it easier to remember for the bard when he was performing it to a live audience. So how anyone can argue Dylan is not a poet in the purest form is beyond me.

Anyway, I digress.

Back to the question of what makes literature high brow or low brow. Everyone knows the distinction we’re drawing here; the kind of book you’re proud to be seen reading in public versus the one you consider putting a different dust jacket on for your daily commute. I’m not going to name names, because I personally think all literature has a certain value, but you know the books I’m talking about.

To answer this as concisely as possible, my feeling is that it comes down to what you take away from whatever literature it is you are reading. From ‘high brow’ literature we come away with themes and philosophical questions; ask someone about To Kill A Mockingbird and you’ll invariably get a discussion about racism and its interaction with society, ask them about Don Quixote and it may involve into an analysis on delusions of grandeur and themes of sanity and madness. The point is, the plot is often secondary to the themes that are brought forth.

This isn’t so true of what we call ‘genre fiction’, whose primary focus is normally the plot. In a conversation about a spy thriller or a crime novel, the will to keep reading is driven by the plot and the primary takeaway is what happens, rather than why it happens. It rarely has an effect on you that lasts beyond your interaction with the book. Of course, that’s not to say that a crime novel can’t be literary fiction. John Le Carré is considered a literary novelist, and a crime thriller that deals with the themes of, for example, police brutality, could well be considered high-brow.

It’s not the genre that defines the work then, but the questions that arise out of it that, for me, make something high or low brow.

That’s just my two cents, anyway, and I’d be really happy to discuss it further, given mr O’Brien only had an hour to deal with such a complex subject I think this could run and run. I’m extremely open to having my viewpoint challenged so please do get in touch in the comments and let’s hash it out.

 

’67

Twelve years in and there’s no end in sight,
The struggle goes on, still an unwanted plight
For us. Yet we toil day to day, can’t give up the fight,
While poor farmers resist our American might.

It’s impossible to define, this bleak situation,
They say that we fight for the ideals of our nation,
But what does that mean to a man losing patience
With a war that we fight that we can’t seem to win?

War is Hell. It’s true. Nothing I could say
Would begin to describe the days
I have lived in fear, as the grey
Fog closed in around us, and I prayed,
For the first time in my life I prayed
To be delivered, begged that I may
Survive to be able write to home and say
That I was safe, that I had not died that day.

And safe I remained, for a while at least,
But they take a toll on you, the deceased,
It releases in the mind a kind of demon, a beast,
And after a while my buddies and me ceased

To cope so well with seeing the new
Recruits thrown out to join us, we knew
What fate, what pain awaited them, the true
Life of the young soldier, while they had no clue.

But what option do we have? This is life now,
This is part of who we are, part of how
Our future is shaped.

And when I wake in the years from now
With sweat streaming from my brow

I’ll point back to here, to this nightmare, to this impossible toil,
To all these young lives wasted on some godforsaken foreign soil.

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Summer Offensive

The rains came, the soldiers deployed,
Forward they went, devoid
Of any emotion, just employed
To see their foe destroyed.

Sneaking in through the smallest of holes,
Each among them knew his or her role,
Narrow passages awaited them, their goal
To find the center of control.

But alas, before they had begun,
Their foes brought out their heavy guns.
First came the floods, filling the tunnels,
Stopped their flight, gone their chance to run.

Then came the bombs, sharp bursts amid the calm.
The sounds deafening, the force alarming.

And then, to end it all came the chemicals.
The final end, the reaper’s sickle.
Troops lay dead and dying, all for the fickle

And pointless Summer pollen offensive

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