March 16, 2008

Growing the Next Generation of Readers

This column usually focuses on writers and poets, but that’s only half of the conversation. The other half, of course, is the reader. And so I recently spoke with Abdi Ali who spends his days encouraging a new generation of readers to discover what literature can bring to their lives.

Ali is a teacher of humanities at the Boston Arts Academy, a pilot school that is the city’s first and only high school for the visual and performing arts. He has taught there since the school’s opening in 1998 and is the founder of and faculty advisor for Slateblue Arts, the student art and literary magazine. Ali is also an advanced doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

What he wants his students to recognize is how literature can give us words for what we have no words for. He mentions a two-line poem by Louise Bogan called Solitary Observation Brought Back from a Sojourn in Hell, that reads: “At midnight tears/Run in your ears.”

“That kind of reading experience where you might not even know who the author is and you might not know the intent of the work, can still have something to say about your life.. You couldn’t articulate it, but you find articulation here.”

It’s that kind of deeply transformative experience of reading that Ali tries to make possible for his students

“The teacher in me is always trying to find texts that do for my students what books do for me,” he says. Among the books that he has seen make a strong impression on his students are White Noise by Don DeLillo and Flight by Sherman Alexie.

As for his own reading, Ali characterizes himself as an “unusual” reader.

“Reading, for me, is a private pleasure. I have friends who read a lot of fiction recommended by their friends. But for me reading is not so public. It’s a very private activity. I’m probably more fussy about what I read, so I take my time with recommendations.

“Some writers never let me down. I’m very forgiving of them, like Michael Ondaatje and poets like David Ferry, Thom Gunn, and Robert Pinsky.

“I read like a writer. I want to read something that takes me to someplace at a high level of language. The first or second sentence has to grab me, though sometimes I’m open to the first paragraph. I read to be informed but more importantly, I read to be surprised,”
Ali and I talk about how, at its best, reading becomes a deep conversation among book, author, and reader. He mentions the poet and critic Mary Kinzie’s image of the reader reading, but at the same time, being read.

“We can have a connection with the part of the work that is reading us and telling us who we are. It’s a kind of reading experience that is saying something about our own lives that we couldn’t articulate but that we see being articulated in the book.

“I think we’re all seeking some language, some metaphor, some word to say the things we’ve felt profoundly, deeply. The act of reading is our best chance of that.”

It ‘s a kind of connection that, Ali admits, doesn’t happen for everyone, but then there will be the moment when it happens for one of his students.

“The student for whom it does waits for me after class to talk. Then I know.”

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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

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