Friday, August 17, 2007

Reflections on Penguins

JoVE at Tricotomania posted some thoughts about literature and mentioned the book Deconstructing Penguins, which I serendipitously was able to find in our library system. It came yesterday, which meant I read the first half while I was at the beach with the kids.

Here is an excerpt from the book.

JoVE asked for opinions on how the book relates to the wider field of literary analysis. I am certainly no expert, but here are some necessarily incomplete thoughts. My exposure to Deconstructionism in literature was brief and came about through my literature BA training in university. It looks like deconstruction is a difficult term to apply, since even its main proponents -- Derrida and Rorty are two names that came up during my college years-- hesitated to define it in precise terms, probably for good reasons, from their perspective. What I got out of the concept back in college was that the text was sort of the raw material for the reader's interpretation. Therefore, it followed that what the author MEANT to say was of less importance than what the reader brought to the experience and what the author's worldview and context determined he would say.

Wikipedia says it just a bit differently:

"Though Derrida himself denied deconstruction was a method or school of philosophy, or indeed anything outside of reading the text itself, the term has been used by others to describe Derrida's particular methods of textual criticism, which involved discovering, recognizing, and understanding the underlying—and unspoken and implicit—assumptions, ideas, and frameworks that form the basis for thought and belief, for example, in complicating the ordinary division made between nature and culture."
In practice, to me, this seemed to lead to a lot of half-baked undergrads and slightly flaky professors having a clear field to talking about the homosexuality of Shakespeare, or whatever was the fun topical-topic of the day or best suited the individual litterateur's own personal worldview. There is probably way more to it than that, but I still get my university's literature newsletter and the publication listings are still too often in this strained mode.

Deconstructing Penguins doesn't quite seem to follow in this school as I understood it. The authors propose that all books are mysteries -- there are clues to be solved to get to the heart of what the writer is saying. Everything is significant. You look at the characters -- who is the protaganist, the character who is trying to push forward the main action of the books? who is the antagonist, who is trying to block this progress? how does the setting contribute to the motion of the book?

The process of understanding the book is the process of getting underneath the surface and sometimes the results are surprising. From the authors' described approach, I get the idea that they are using the word "deconstructing" to mean the opposite of "constructing" -- ie, working back from the finished product, the author's construction, to its origins.

Once you have gone through the process of understanding what the author is trying to say, according to the book, THEN you can justly critique how he or she said it -- to what extent the author is successful. (I notice that often in the cyberworld, there is a tendency to do this BEFORE actually making the effort to understand the work on its own terms). Perhaps this hasty judgment was also a besetting temptation in my literature department .... jumping too fast to what the author's limitations are, and what he is REALLY talking about, shortcircuits the solution of the mystery. Thus, you got early critics of the Lord of the Rings talking about how the Ring was really the atom bomb. Chesterton also satirizes this temptation to invent or impose meaning, in several of his Father Brown mystery stories.

For example, read Chesterton's Oracle of the Dog for a funny and telling depiction of how meaning is sometimes imposed from without the actual thing itself, rather than properly understood within it.

‘The dog could almost have told you the story, if he could talk,’ said the priest. ‘All I complain of is that because he couldn’t talk you made up his story for him, and made him talk with the tongues of men and angels. It’s part of something I’ve noticed more and more in the modern world, appearing in all sorts of newspaper rumours and conversational catchwords; something that’s arbitrary without being authoritative.

Deconstructing Penguins does NOT seem to fall into this trap, as far as I've read it. The authors seem to keep to the actual text and use their methods to uncover real layers of meaning contained within. They attempt to engage with the life experience of the child to show, for example how prejudice works. But this is a legitimate literary process -- checking the work against one's own experience -- and is difference from using one's own life understanding to trump or subvert the text of the book. Perhaps this is what deconstruction is at its best.

The authors do a nice job of showing their process interactively, through their lively accounts of the book clubs they ran for second to fifth graders and their parents. I totally agree with what they say here:

"The theory, still in vogue, that says it doesn't matter what your child reads as long as he or she reads something is just plain wrong. If anyone tries to convince you otherwise, don't believe it. ....If you start your children off with books that are well-written, whose plots demand attention, with characters drawn with depth and wit, that is the type of reading they will come to enjoy. ...

Kids enjoy depth. The idea that a boy or girl will only be interested in discussing a book in a superficial way is another misguided assumption. .... The irony is that it is far more fun for kids (and adults) to try and solve the mystery of a book. "
I think the only possible danger with this approach might be expressed in another quote from the book:

"We're looking for what the author is trying to say underneath the story. What the story is really about. What do you think the story is really about?"

I could see that if this approach was used in a very schooly, artificial way, the kids and parents could fall into the trap of thinking that the story is a kind of code for some boiled-down thesis. The Lord of the Rings is about: The danger of power. Charlotte's Web is about: the importance of friendship. And so on. In other words, a glib and reductionist problem-solving approach that closes down significance rather than expands understanding of it. But within the examples given in the book, the search for meaning actually does go deeper into the heart of the book, rather than shutting it off quickly.

The nice thing, though, about a conversational approach such as the authors recommend is that it is to some extent self-correcting. Any group of kids and adults will come up with enough diversity of approach and understanding that some of the dangers of superficiality will be avoided.

JoVe posted some more literature thoughts here.

I remember researching Mortimer Adler's Shared Inquiry ideas a few years back and in some ways the Deconstructing Penguins approach seems a bit similar, but I'd have to look more into it to see how and if they differ significantly.

Another book in a slightly similar vein, which I have on my bookshelves, is Reading Strands... though I liked the tone of Deconstructing Penguins just a bit better.

The Thinking Mother blogged a bit about the book, too.


momof3feistykids said...

Excellent post! I would like to read this book. I think literary analysis based on love of literature and really listening to the author's message is very beneficial for our kids. And far removed from the academic exercises I remember from high school and college - which are geared toward trying to come up with "clever and original" interpretations you project onto the book. Usually to impress the instructor.

christinemm said...

Thanks for linking through to my old blog post about Deconstructing Penguins.

I did end up reading the book and love the book.

As a follow-up I want to share that my older son and I ended up enrolling in a free workshop with one of the authors of this book. We were able to go through the books and have the actual author of the book lead our discussion groups. We did the second grade class and it was interesting to be with about 20 kids and to see how the facilitator/author guided the discussion. Listening to what the kids thought and how they said it was also cute!

Another follow-up is that two homeschooling mothers I know lead different book discussion groups using D.P. as their guide and they say it works out great.

So far I have resisted joining those homeschoolers D.P. book clubs due to the fact that we're either always over-scheduled or trying not to be.

Have a great day!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts. Helpful as always as I think through these things.