Thursday, October 15, 2009

`The Miracle of a Few Written Signs'

I've been working with a woman in a high school special-education class whose favorite novel is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. She’s read it many times, knows the movie by heart and as a student had a minor role in her high school’s production of the play. She’s been reading the book aloud, a few pages daily, to our students. Some are attentive, at least periodically. For others, she might as well be reading the phone book. Though sincere, she’s not a good reader, alternately droning and shrill, and makes no effort to simulate an Alabama drawl or differentiate characters’ voices.

On Tuesday, even more short-staffed than usual, she asked me to take over reading duties. I’m a ham about reading aloud, mostly because I find dull, indifferent reading unbearable. Though I don’t like the novel, and find the narrator’s faux-naïve voice irritating, I tried to read enthusiastically and with humor. The kids seemed more interested than usual, less distracted, and I got to pronounce a word I love to say – scuppernong. Lunch was approaching and not wanting to interrupt the reading I glanced at a supervisor who gave me the “keep going” signal. I went on for another 10 minutes or so and started to feel like Atticus Finch or at least Gregory Peck.

Two staff members complimented the performance, though one of them, a nurse, said something baffling: “Of course, you were a journalist so you know how to read good.” After lunch, one of the students said, “I like the way you read. I like that little girl [the narrator, six-year-old Scout Finch].”

Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. I happened to be rereading a very different sort of novel published two years later – Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Rereading it is always an exercise in undiluted pleasure. Late in the novel, in a note to line 991 of John Shade’s poem ("Somewhere horseshoes are being tossed. Click, Clunk."), mad Charles Kinbote, some of whose strong opinions he shares with his creator, writes:

“We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students).”

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