Understanding Understanding

At school we used to be tested on comprehension from time to time. I suppose there was some kind of comprehension component on every exam from primary school right through to the HSC and, thinking about it now, it’s not entirely clear what the point of it was. Early on, when we were younger, the answers to these questions must have been used as some sort of gauge of vocabulary and reading ability and aptitude to follow instructions when you interpreted the questions and responded to them, which makes some sort of sense. But later on, when you were prepared to answer quite complex questions about Shakespeare and the kind of poetry that doesn’t rhyme, it seemed to have less of a point. Surely if you can sustain some analysis which compares the moors scene in King Lear to the Holocaust then you won’t have any trouble with a few questions about a few paragraphs which probably weren’t written by a genius. Perhaps the point was that the answers couldn’t be prepared for this part of the paper, and so questions of this sort test a different skill from the long essay on a set work, which, if the student is that way inclined, could mean having a variety of potential answers, each thousands of words long, learned and ready to be regurgitated. Of course, that’s not learning. And it always annoyed me to think that lesser intellects were readying themselves for an exam in this way – I used to say that these students had no “flair”, with the tacit understanding that I did have flair, and lots of it. I was up myself, perhaps, a little bit, and looked down upon people who worked harder, but we all make mistakes and this isn’t meant to be some list of sins to be confessed.

Comprehension, then, seemed to have limited utility for those sitting the more rigorous English exams; although maybe I was wrong to say I doubted the point of the exercise. There was a point. The point was to demonstrate that you understood.

I’m not sure if something has happened to me in the interim, but arriving at an understanding of what I read can sometimes be difficult. Not the most basic level of comprehension, though – I can understand sentences and paragraphs and comprehend the entire plot of a novel. I can certainly follow the train of thought of the author of a non-fiction book, if it is well written. The understanding I’m talking about is answering the questions “Is this good?” and “Why?”

Themes and motifs and even references to other authors are not lost on me, but my reading operates at the level of feeling to such an extent that there is too much mystery. Mystery seems to pervade the experience and some critical faculty is either not allowed to function or it has forgotten how to. I was lucky enough to be taught grammar at a young age, and tend to reflect, somewhat sneeringly, that not all kids my age were taught these rules at the time and that, it seems, practically no-one is taught them today. (This may not even be true, but it’s a strong perception which the media feeds.) However, and this totally undermines my sense of superiority or at least good luck to have been educated in a traditional manner, I have forgotten many of these precepts, and now govern the way I write by what seems to fit or to look right or to feel best. Because I have been taught, and because I do read a lot of books and read them carefully, I don’t get things wrong very often – or not badly wrong anyway – and when I do I often pick up these errors or failings and know how to correct them quickly.

This feel thing though: it could be the key to the problem. The way I read is often at the level of punctuation and arrangement, structuring of words on the page, and the results are twofold. Learning by copying, which I’ve already mentioned, and the enjoyment I derive from a novel is primarily from the level of language, the poetry of the language, and this latter is what I prize most of all. It’s the thing I most want to read when I’m reading and the thing I most want to write when I’m writing. It’s what I think of when I think of writing well. Writing, of course, is about more than placing words in a sequence on a page. Structure is about how the elements of plot and characterisation are distributed throughout the entire work. And, naturally, character development and action are crucial features in any story, which can almost go unnoticed when you read the way I do. That’s the mystery element: it all seems to come together, without me noticing how.

None of this is to say that I lack the ability to understand. I can understand. It’s just that because some kinds of understanding are prioritised and others are made secondary the enjoyment of a work of fiction can be impaired, or at least restricted from flowering into a fully-fledged appreciation. When I read a review, and reading reviews is one of the things I enjoy doing most, I am struck by the comments which I could not have made: things I hadn’t thought, but instantly recognise (and agree or disagree) when the point is made. I wonder what I would even say if someone were to ask me about certain books I really favour over the others that I merely like.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps this is all exaggeration. It certainly is navel gazing. But I can’t escape the feeling that I don’t want to become like some sportsmen and women who are good without ever being trained (or without listening to their coaches), and when things go wrong and they find themselves not playing very well they are left clueless about what to do. If you don’t know what you are doing right when it’s working then you also won’t know what you’re doing wrong when it stops working.

And this may not even be a problem. Not a serious one, anyway. It will take patience. An already slow reader may need to carefully note things he might ordinarily miss. But that’ll be fine – reading can never be a bad thing.

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Published in: on May 9, 2013 at 8:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

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