Praise Song for the Day: Reading Matters: Reading for Breadth and Depth
Monday, February 15, 2021
Back in high school, one of my speech teachers gave me a dictionary-sized version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I remember the gift like it was yesterday. He knew that I admired it. He saw me leafing through the book often whenever we took breaks from rehearsals in the Little Theater.
Then, back in high school, I remember finding my passion for reading and my voice in the theater, specifically in the speech department. Of course, I had been a voracious reader before junior year in high school when I became obsessed with Shakespeare, but I set out to do something I had not yet done to that point, which is to run the table of one author.
How did this all happen? What was the context for this passion?
Growing up, we had a massive school with an enrollment somewhere between 3500–4000 students in the entire place. Thornton Township High School (TTHS) in Harvey, Illinois was known for its athletics, sending students on to some of the top collegiate programs in the country, many of our alumni choosing to stay in the Midwest to compete at the highest amateur levels.
Similarly, my group of friends and classmates helped to create one of the best competitive drama programs in the State of Illinois, performing at a high level in speech team, commonly known as individual events. For those who weren’t “into” drama, these competitive events also included contest play and group interpretation. What made TTHS’s speech department so radical was the outstanding young faculty and, I would argue, that we had one of the most diverse teams in the state at the time, which I don’t think many of us back then thought all that deeply about. We felt, “It is what it is.” We now know this to be the case from the research from the Harvard Business Review article on “How Diverse Teams Are Smarter” (HBR, 2016). A corollary: diverse teams tend to be more talented, too. We theorized it also made us better people.
So, how did the diverse underpinnings of our time together in the speech department lead to being a voracious and avid reader? It all begins and ends with the relationships you form and with the text. Discussing “how” a piece of writing works together is not something that you typically do in a sustained way in an English or history class, particularly in high school. In those disciplines, you read a scene or a chapter from a book, and then you move on. At TTHS, we discussed and debated with each other, and our teachers, about “how” a text revealed itself and not just what it said — for weeks and sometimes months. Through our work together, we got a sense of each other, how a writer writes, what devices were being employed, and how a reader (us) or an audience (our target) might respond to those devices. As high schoolers, we became experts at revealing and interpreting the hundreds of authors we read and saw, especially those other students and directors with whom we competed. We loved this continuous relationship with our classmates and other folks that we got to know on the circuit.
My classmates and I also read and performed in a variety of texts that stretched our sensibilities, making us look closely at how dramatic events unfolded and how to make people feel something, which is key to what a writer does. For instance, in David Mamet’s “The Water Engine,” which was a group interpretation piece we performed, we expanded Mamet’s sparse lines to fill out the dramatic sequences with the beats that became more like spoken word poetry. Likewise, when we tackled scenes from Shakespeare, we not only understood the rhythm of the work, but we also showed how the plot and pacing advanced a writer’s intentions.
Getting back to why reading one author matters, I was given the gift of seeing and hearing Shakespeare’s craft over a course of his career in the guise of my teacher’s gift to me. To be honest, I probably got through two-thirds of what the book held, starting with the comedies. On the other hand, two-thirds of Shakespeare was much better than “no” thirds or just a handful of plays and sonnets. Therefore, when it came to reading the complete works of James Baldwin, which I was supremely interested in how Baldwin framed being a Black man in America in the 1970s, I could then do the same thing with the complete works of Thomas Hardy and Charlotte Bronte, etc. In other words, no author was immune from being interrogated. We must dispense with the idea that there is some canon that needs to be read. There isn’t. We should, however, attempt to challenge people to read authors that challenge our notion of the human experience, see how they develop that idea over their life’s work, and then understand that good and not so good literature exists in the world. Our speech teachers challenged us to read in a way that created more questions and room for wide vistas and realms to be unearthed, like an archeologist, we were discovered, all. For depth and breadth we read, it came with a human question: “How might we…”
How might you create a challenge for yourself of reading an author in her or his entirety? What might you pull from in your past to give you the inspiration that reading one author you love might provide you? Why would you only read “the best of” when you can begin to see the formulation of ideas in their entirety over a lifetime? Or, have you already completed this challenge? If so, who’s next? Of course, many younger readers do this all of the time with J.K. Rowling or Rick Riordan.
The world is open to you, especially as we spend more time indoors thinking and being. Now, go crazy.
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Like a daily gratitude practice, Praise Song for the Day will be a way of appreciating what we know we know in a different and perhaps even profoundly deeper way. This column takes its name from a poem of the same title by Elizabeth Alexander called “Praise Song for the Day,” delivered twelve years ago at the Inauguration of the 44th President of the United States. Clap back if you dig the piece.