Why do we read? Why do we write?


[This was originally written shortly after Hurricane Sandy, and an appearance at the School Library Journal Summit in Philadelphia, an event that I tried to disrupt in some critical ways. But in the aftermath I thought it important to write about the “why” of written communication. I bring it up now because of the death yesterday of Umberto Eco. And, please note — consider that “Common Core” here represents “locked in expectations for students”]

At first I wanted to write about, "What are school libraries for? Who are school libraries for?" because that seemed to be an essential set of questions that appeared as we presented an "unkeynote" - a challenge to the how, why, and what of the school library in this century. But then, sitting trapped in a hotel room by the massive storm, staring out a window at the magnificence of Philadelphia’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, I watched some videos of students "reading and writing" in schools, and I found deeper questions.

Sometime after our unkeynote - a set of challenges to existing harmonies rather than a focus on one - and after Chris Lehmann 's keynote the next morning, the SLJ Summit arrived at the business of the Common Core. And it was in that shift, from broad conversations on openness to mechanical conversations on closed processes, that the questions began emerging.

Why do we read? Why do we write? How do we bring reading to children? How do we encourage children to write?

Will we accept a true democracy of voices? Or do we continue to pursue the colonialism of conversion, the colonialism of standardization?

Umberto Eco, the brilliant European semiologist and novelist, says in the afterword to the English-language edition of his 2010 novel The Prague Cemetery that, well, first that he hopes that readers are not to derailed by his "fairly chaotic" non-linear narrative, and that second, he worries about readers - and in both cases this perhaps applies primarily to English and American readers - getting trapped by "the fatal imbalance between story and plot," or, he offers the Russian literary terms, "fabula and syuzhet," in Wikipedia’s description, "The fabula is "the raw material of a story, and syuzhet, the way a story is organized."' If you read the linked New York Times review by novelist and professor Rebecca Newberger Goldstein you will find that fatal tension obvious. Goldstein reviews the plot, and in doing so, misses the entire story. Eco is not, of course, telling us the origins of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in The Prague Cemetery anymore than he wrote a history of the 14th Century Church in The Name of the Rose, rather he is writing a highly contemporary tale of the methods of public opinion manipulation by governments and others, something incredibly relevant to all of us right now.

[I probably should have put a note similar to Eco's at the end - or at the beginning - of The Drool Room, but that I didn't perhaps explains why the book is more popular in Ireland than in the US...]

Goldstein, a very smart person, missed the story, but that's not surprising. She's an American educated academic, raised by "school as we know it," so to her, plot is what matters. We know this, it is the heart of how we read in school, of how we want kids to write in school, it lies at the heart of the Common Core, in all the standards in those documents, which are NOT flexible, because they form a rigid frame within which any reading must be jammed... That rigid frame which prevented Rebecca Newberger Goldstein from finding the story in Eco's writing.

What is the plot of Ulysses? or The English Patient? or Sophie’s Choice? Sophie’s Choice is one of the most powerful stories of the 20th Century, yet the plot? Well, it’s - to be blunt - "how I first got laid." Ulysses? a walk through Dublin one day. The English Patient? You know the plot, in order to make a movie for Americans the story was stripped out of the book - leaving just the plot.

The stunningly rich tale of consent to imperialism in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient becomes a simple love affair and cautionary tale about boundaries via Common Core arithmetic:

"I grew up with traditions from my country, but later, more often, from your country.

Your fragile white island that with customs and manners and books and prefects and reason somehow converted the rest of the world. You stood for precise behaviour. I knew if I lifted a teacup with the wrong finger I’d be banished. If I tied the wrong kind of knot in a tie I was out. Was it just ships that gave you such power? Was it, as my brother said, because you had the histories and printing presses?

"Your fragile white island that with customs and manners and books and prefects and reason somehow converted the rest of the world.," says Kipp in The English Patient, as he damns the Common Core idea along with 'the way we teach.' "What do you think will happen next?" we ask our students, focusing on the Anglo-American plot rather than the rhythms, emotions, sensations, evoked memories which drive writing in so many cultures. Can you produce an "accurate and concise summary statement"? one of the teaching videos I watched asked. Really? Who wants the damn summary? What is that for? Why must you imagine what happens next in order to experience a story? What is wrong with the moment? What is wrong with taking something complex in, and not simplifying it?

"You write like a European," I was told early in my doctoral studies, and though I said, "Thank you," in response that was meant as a criticism to be corrected. "They" meant that I do not write in a simple linear form, they meant that I do not adhere to North American philosophies. They meant that my sentences were often crafted with rhythms, not just words. And they meant that all of that is wrong.

We are not usually so obvious in our stated biases, but every day in schools I see students punished for their voices, punished for their culturally ingrained reading styles, punished for refusing to over-simplify, because we teach reading and writing in the same way the English like to teach tea drinking.

So, school librarians, and teachers of the English language, here is a story of mine... Can we find an "accurate and concise summary statement"? What do you think will happen next? What is the plot?


In the summer when I turned thirteen I swam across Long Island Sound to the lighthouse on Execution Rocks.

At thirteen there are nights when you cannot sleep. Not because of actual reasons for terror in the house, nor because of worries or pressures. And really not even because the hot, humid Gulf Stream air swamping New York is too still and sweat coats your skin. But because there are so many things to hope for, so many wishes, that your brain cannot file them all away fast enough to let the silence come. This was the morning after one of those nights, and perhaps, not just for me.

Ten of us, maybe eleven - it is hard to count or even know all the faces now - mostly boys but not all, mostly members of the YMCA’s Swim Team but not all, stood in the long gazebo at Hudson Park which overlooked the beach and the Sound. Late July, and the early morning light mixed with the incoming salt of the rising tide, and the seaweed and fish and the plants of the marshes. The flag in the park hung limp, only showing flutters of life around its edges.

It began with a dare, because that is the way stories of thirteen-year-old boys usually begin. Someone suggested we swim across Echo Bay, the small enclosure of the Sound which held the city’s municipal marina and rowing club, and which, 280 years before, had seen Huguenot refugees of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre arrive to form a new home in a new land. But Echo Bay seemed both too easy - maybe somewhere between a quarter and a half mile - and too dangerous - the other side housed the rich, we’d be arriving on some rich person’s lawn - and too familiar - we swam every day at the Hudson Park beaches here.

"We should swim out to Execution Rocks," I then might have said. The kind of crazy statement I could make at times like this. Execution Rocks, which had held a lighthouse since the early days of the American Republic, was the farthest outcropping of the City of New Rochelle, lying more than two miles across the Sound, much closer to the Long Island shore than to any point on this side, and marking the shipping channel through our rock-infested choke point where the Sound became the East River.

Decades later, I would stand in a gourmet food store before a shelf of various sea salts and wonder if I could season my foods with memories. Could I use the salt from this particular branch of the Atlantic Ocean? Or from the surf off Coney Island? From Lough Foyle or the Forty-Foot in Ireland? From Cape Disappointment where the Columbia finds the Pacific? What dreams might those meals awaken?

A thousand yards out, that’s 40 lengths of the 25 yard pool we swam in under the Y gym, where the low ceiling held the chlorine captive so you could not smell the difference between air and water, my arms felt fine but my legs were beginning to drag behind me, and I let myself pause, coming upright in the pond-flat green water, my legs in a slow bicycle pump that stretched the muscles in different ways. I was still in coastal waters, tiny Huckleberry Island, legend told us of an old "Shore Club" and a great fire but who really knew?, still lay over a thousand feet away. But here, I breathed as deeply as I could now and saw the world from that exact point we call "sea level," was a wondrously safe spot. I could still see and hear my friends on shore, they were waving, and I waved back - slowly to indicate that I was fine, not frantically as in a call for help - and thought of not returning. And then I turned and began swimming toward the little island’s rocky point.

They had said the swim to the lighthouse was "fucking insane," and "really stupid," and when I had argued that neither of those things were true they had dared me to try it. So we’d gotten on our bikes and ridden down the hill out of Hudson Park, turned left onto Hudson Park Road, then left again to climb the little hill at the start of Davenport Avenue - we could have ridden the flat route along Pelham Road and Church Street but it was not going to be that sort of day - and curved around the long reach of Davenport Neck until we tore down the vast grassy hill of Davenport Park and came to the giant tumbled rocks at the water. I’d swim it, but I wasn’t going to start an extra half-mile away. We all knew this was not just the closest spot, but that it also had an island sort of halfway, a safety factor of importance.

Here, further out in the Sound, a slight breeze cooled us, but couldn’t ripple the water. And the tide was reaching its top now, creating the calmest waters. I pushed my Keds off, pulled my socks off, and dropped my jeans, leaving just the purple Y Speedos most of us wore under our pants that summer. My shirt had been off and tied around the bike’s seat post since I’d gotten on it that morning. "Scream if you’re drowning," Billy said. "Yeah," I said, and walked to the one spot on the rocks we knew was safe for diving at this moment, and jumped in. "You’re buying me pizza when I get back," I yelled after coming up to the surface. "Don’t race," Peter said, kind of softly, "just go slow." I turned and headed south.

Three weeks or so later there was a meet at Saxon Woods, a huge county pool up near White Plains, with 50 meter lengths and teams from Ys and recreation programs from all over and the heavy smell of Coppertone and girls, lots of girls, even girls we knew. That day too was way too hot, and between heats the sun would weigh on our skin, pushing against us, driving us into the narrow strip of shade along the bathhouse. The girls, we understood, were there to see us, not to see us swim. They stared at our groins the way we stared at their rapidly growing tits, with not quite fully defined fascination. We then became completely aware of our own bodies, in ways that those of us who choose to hide in the water could not yet deal with. In September of that year, sitting in Cindy’s bedroom on a Saturday afternoon, she put her hand on my thigh and asked, "What does it take to get you, you know, umm, excited?"

As she found out, I remembered her looking at me that day at Saxon Woods. How had she gotten there? What, exactly, had she been looking for?

When I pushed off the Huckleberry Island rocks I felt good, if vaguely thirsty. From here, a bit more than a mile maybe, maybe more, I guessed it would depend how far the current pulled me off course - a hundred little corrections adds up in distance, and the target now was a tiny spot in the water, still, at this moment in time, occupied by a lighthouse keeper, and home to deep-voiced steam foghorn which sang me to sleep on the stormy nights of autumn. And here, beyond that coastal zone, the water rose and fell, forcing a change in stroke to make breathing a conscious decision every time, and the smells of land vanished, and the water temperature dropped, and the world narrowed to just me and this sea, both my closest friend and my mortal enemy.

I pulled myself up onto the rocks in full, but not panicked, exhaustion, and lay gasping for air and feeling like my shoulders could not rotate one more time. I closed my eyes and felt the sun, and the warm stone, and listened to the waves splash against those rocks. Those rocks, that was our Halloween story. It was called "Execution Rocks" our story went, because the British had chained prisoners to these rocks during the Revolution and then waited for the tide to rise. When I looked again, I was staring up at both the lighthouse and a man in a blue uniform, who held a large green thermos out to me. "Did you just fuckin' swim here?" there was no wait for an answer, "drink this you crazy moron."

He gave me a salami sandwich on dark brown bread and lots of water as we sat on folding chairs in the shade of the island’s house. He asked about my swimming, where I went to school, what I knew about the currents here. He never asked my name, or where I lived, or why I had just swum two miles to his spot on the map. I refused the boat ride back, though there was no doubt that he would shadow me in his launch back toward Huckleberry. For reasons I could not name this seemed to be alright with me.

I climbed back out of the water at Davenport Park three or three and a half hours after leaving. Maybe it was four hours or more. Time is not a specific thing here. I pulled myself up the rocks to a lot of whoops and stuff from now impressed friends. And they wrapped their towels around me, and I looked out, and saw the lighthouse keeper in his boat, just beyond Huckleberry. He waved. I hope I waved back, and then I stumbled to the grass. And then I think I slept.

(c) 2012 by Ira David Socol

I asked the questions above this story for reasons both personal and professional. You see, first, though I felt that I really needed to write this story, I do not know why that was so. This is a story - in my mind it is one fully coherent tale - but I know neither plot nor theme. And second, I read and write stories 'like this' all the time. Not just "fiction" either, for I have found that "reality" - whatever that may be - often looks a lot more like this than the writing in any high school history book.

And so I wonder, (a) where does my communication fit into your school? your Common Core? your library? your classroom? and (b) where does that democracy of voice fit in? How do we embrace that and not squash it?

The world is a place of constant reinvention. If we all follow the rules, the paths, nothing changes. There is a reason the books of the colonials so often fill the Booker Prize shortlists, there is a reason Irish fiction and poetry are prized so much more highly than that of the English or Americans. The rules have never fully taken root away from "the Queen’s English," and the paths begin in very different places, and it is the uncommon, not the common, which has extraordinary value.

“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.

"I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography - to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience." - Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

- Ira Socol

Author, Dreamer, Educator: A life in service - NYPD, EMS, disabilities/UDL specialist, tech and innovation leader for education. Co-author of Timeless Learning

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