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Pedagogy 6.1 (2006) 155-159

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Engaging Literature:

Difficulty as an Entry to Reading and Writing

[Works Cited for Roundtable]
The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty. By Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori and Patricia Donahue. New York: Pearson Education–Longman, 2005.

This is a good book—in many ways a very good book indeed. Whether it will also be a successful book for those who choose to use it, however, will depend a lot on the purposes to which it is put, for it's not an easily categorized book. Though it appears in the Pearson-Longman Elements of Composition series, it is nothing like a traditional composition textbook. There is no methodical exposition of concepts, nor are there chapters on invention or organization. And though there is a good deal of student writing quoted in it, there is little about writing as such. Neither is the book about the other thing you might first think: how to read literature. Though it organizes its seven brief chapters in a progression of genres from short poems and longer poems to short fiction and plays, there is in fact little talk about interpretation. So that's not it. Its title rightly says it's about "difficulty," but in the end I'd say the book's subject is really something like launching students into literary reading. Proceeding from the conviction that few students find complex literature at all engaging, this book focuses almost exclusively on self-reflective techniques that can get them hooked on hard books. [End Page 155]

The principal strategy the authors propose for enabling students to become enthusiastic readers is to help them harness their initial feelings of confusion or boredom or defeat in the reading of literature as a way to launch a quest for understanding. Don't let difficulties of this sort end your willingness to read, they tell students. Don't hide your confusions, or read them as signs of failure. See them instead as ways to identify entry points to the text before you. Again and again the book urges students to become aware of themselves as readers, to monitor their developing responses, and to value their capacities to describe what slows them down. You are not alone in finding these texts difficult, they tell students. You just haven't yet learned how to make the difficulties you find, the confusions you feel, the boredom, even, that assails you into assets.

The metacognitive dimension of this strategy is obvious, and the book's eagerness to keep this process central to all its work explains a great deal about some of its unorthodox features. For one thing, it explains one of the book's real strengths, its extensive inclusion of student texts, whose lines are quoted, often at length, on as much as one-third of this book's 120 pages. (By contrast, except when they are quoted in student papers, lines from literary works appear on only 8 pages.) Moreover, the book's emphasis on metacognition also explains the kinds of papers the text offers us: accounts of students' successes in finding confusing pronouns, or unexplained repetitions, or archaic words, and not examples of interpretive argument as such.

Most important, however, the metacognitive emphasis also explains the book's almost exclusive focus on what its authors call the "propedeutic." When I first encountered that word in the preface for instructors, its jargony character put me off. It was only once I was well into the subsequent chapters that I saw how the emphasis forced by the unfamiliar term actually gave a necessary focus to another of the book's key features: it doesn't deal much with interpretation because it centers all its energies on the space between readers' first encounters with a text and their first efforts to make sense of it. As Salvatori and Donahue explain, "The tools we propose are meant only for propedeutic, preparatory work. And with a few exceptions, the samples of student writing are not from final, polished papers, but represent work in progress. . . . The work initiated here...


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