The Sunday New York Times Book Review had an essay this week by Tariq Ramadan about the Koran and how it can and should be read. There is a lot of food for thought in his carefully crafted essay, especially his thoughts concerning how one should approach the Text of the Koran only after understanding Islam, and about it’s many levels of appreciation.
Early on he said something that struck a chord:
In its final form, the Text follows neither a chronological nor strictly thematic order. Two things initially strike the reader: the repetition of Prophetic stories, and the formulas and information that refer to specific historical situations that the Koran does not elucidate. Understanding, at this first level, calls for a twofold effort on the part of the reader: though repetition is, in a spiritual sense, a reminder and a revivification, in an intellectual sense it leads us to attempt to reconstruct. The stories of Eve and Adam, or of Moses, are repeated several times over with differing though noncontradictory elements: the task of human intelligence is to recompose the narrative structure, to bring together all the elements, allowing us to grasp the facts.
Did he just outline my thoughts about our approaches to nonfiction for young readers? I believe he did. The idea that if you present information in clumps of narrative and allow the younger reader to take in all that information they will pull it all together in the end. There are many who wouldn’t give the reader that much credit, or would prefer that there be some guidance toward a “correct” interpretation of the data, both of which condescends and sells the reader short.
“Recomposing the narrative” set something off in my head, that and something about boys and religion. What was my brain attempting to hammer together? I dug through some bookmarked articles I had on boys and reading, and one article in the School Library Journal by Leonard Sax that delves into the reasons why boys hate school starts off like this:
Have you ever attended a Pentecostal service? I have… just once. I found it absolutely terrifying. People standing, waving their arms in the air, shouting unintelligible streams of words. I felt as though I had been locked in an asylum where I couldn’t understand the language the inmates were speaking.
Afterward, my friend Luis, who had invited me, asked me how I liked the service. “It was different,” I said, truthfully enough. “It’s not what I’m used to. How would you like to come to my church sometime?”
Luis shook his head. “I went to one of those services once, at a Methodist church,” he said. “When everybody started singing a hymn, I sang too. Then I raised my hands up in the air as I was singing. You would have thought I had just taken off all my clothes. People looked so embarrassed. They were trying not to look at me. Two teenage girls whispered and giggled and pointed at me. I put my hands back down, and I never went back.”
Huh. One religion, same text, different approaches. Not what I thought I was looking for, but that lead me back to a little factoid dropped into an editorial by SLJ editor-in-chief Brian Kenney:
At the recent American Library Association annual conference in Washington, DC, Lynne McKechnie, of the University of Western Ontario, presented some fascinating research on the secret reading lives of boys. Interviewing nearly 50 boys between the ages of four and 12—and examining their home libraries—she found that boys were reading: nonfiction, game manuals, comic books, and catalogs.
Ah, now I get it, now I understand what my brain was looking for. If the Koran is filled with narratives meant to be brought back together in a way that makes sense to the reader, regardless of that reader’s experience and understanding, then what we have in the Koran (and no less so in the Torah and the Bible) are a compliment of narratives that beg to be taken apart and put back together again.
How like a boy.
When we look at boys and boy behavior how much of what can be observed has to to do with the idea of their taking things apart so they can be understood and put back together? And when we look at the types of reading boys get into we see a similar structure, information that is to be absorbed and recombined into a greater understanding. If modern religion is patriarchal could it not stem from the fact that the texts it uses for its basis follow a typically male sense of organization? Honestly, there is little difference between the skills needed to access a game manual and interpret fragmented religious doctrine. They may possess literal meanings but they are intended to be shuffled and used on an as-needed basis, fluid and mutable. And if, as Leonard Sax experienced, “the message” is presented in a different and somewhat disarming way it doesn’t negate the precepts both experiences stem from.
What my brain had done, what boys will tend to do, is it stored information of interest and when the time came and the spark ignited it pulled the pieces together. In a strange bit of inculcation I managed to cobble together a narrative idea that made sense (to me, and I hope to others) that I am now attempting to disseminate.
From what my brain has drawn from these sources the secrets to understanding how to approach reading material for boys is, at its simplest, a case of repetition of facts and their non-chronological presentation in a way to allow for those facts to become clear through the individual efforts at restructuring their narrative. This obviously requires some tinkering both with the methods of presentation and the reeducation of those who would be providing these new textual ideas — publishers, librarians and teachers — but the end result might also present a new narrative structure for fiction as well.
Am I wrong in this, is my boy logic failing me?