Detective Stories, Narrative Theory, Semiotics, Reading–a further case for popular literature

I have long been interested in narrative theory and almost wrote my dissertation on narratology and Victorian Fiction before coming to my senses and writing about utopias (both eutopias and dystopias) and mythologies.  I also have a long-standing interest in semiotics–the study of signs–which is a truly fancy way of saying that I’m interested not just in the things I read but in the act of reading itself.  If you believe, as I do, that “all the world’s a text,” then everything, I mean EVERYTHING–from football defenses to body language to driving conditions to the spin on a curve ball to facial expressions to novels to art work to graffiti to television commercials needs to be read (and interpreted).

Many years ago I decided that I could help my students become better readers by having them watch readers reading and then “imitate” the specific strategies of good readers.  An effective way I found, with boys in particular, was to use detective stories.  So at the beginning of the year I would spend time with Conan Doyle (“Speckled Band,” “Red Headed League,”) Dashiell Hammett’s “They Can Only Hang You Once,” an Agatha Christie story (“The Kindnapped Prime Minister”), Jacques Futrelle’s “The Problem of Cell 13” and others.  I would often show a scene from the mostly under-rated movie China Moon wherein Ed Harris “teaches” Benicio Del Toro  how to read and the difference between “seeing” things and “reading” them. Each detective “reads” a situation, clues etc.–foregrounding and backgrounding pieces of evidence.  I still find this fascinating and often watch myself reading (something I haven’t quite figured out how to teach is the ability to be reading and to be conscious of your reading and to be critiquing your reading as you are doing it, but it’s a bit like lucid dreaming)–some really fine authors encourage us to “read along” and when I hear people who are upset at a “trick ending” it is often that they are saying that the author (director) did not provide them with the textual evidence to support a particular development (or their own lack of skills or knowledge prevented them from “reading” correctly and they blame the author).

Robert Crais (whose novel The Watchman got a mention in an earlier post) often plays with ideas about story telling and reading in a wonderfully conversational manner. Consider the following two passages–the first from Chasing Darkness and the second from The Sentry.

In this passage a lawyer, Levy, is explaining to his investigative detective, Elvis Cole, his approach to the law.

“Levy studied me for a moment, then spread his hands. ‘I make up stories.  That’s my job, Elvis. Making up stories within the defined parameters of an established structure. That’s what I do [I’d say that it’s what any poet does, too].’ ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ [says Elvis]. ‘The law. I start with a list–names, dates, events, whatever–information on a page, facts without a narrative structure.  My job is to frame those facts with a narrative, you see? A story. The opposing counsel, they have exactly the same facts, and they have to make up a story, too. The facts are the same, but the stories are always different. Same facts, two different stories, and whoever tells the best story convinces the jury.  I am very good with my stories, Elvis. I can take a list of facts, any facts at all, and create the most wonderful stories. I do that better than almost anyone.'” (p. 94)

I don’t trust Levy as a storyteller because his definition of what makes a story “wonderful” is that he can get juries to believe them.  But this is quite different from telling the truth through a story.  And, had I been a better reader of this novel I would have taken this enormous clue to Levy’s character and been cross-referencing it against everything else I knew as I read the novel.  As it is, I was surprised by a later development–but not cheated–Levy had told me everything I needed to know about his approach to the law and the world.

Here is a third-person narrator describing the way that laconic tough guy Joe Pike from The Sentry thinks about what he does: “Pike studied the houses and the shadows beneath the pedestrian bridge and the play of light on the water. He felt he understood everything that had happened until Mendoza and Gomer returned to the canals to be murdered. He did not understand why they had returned, why they were killed, or who had killed them, and now this business…made him rethink himself, and them, and everything he had believed was true.  Maybe that was good. He believed the answers were here in this place, so his task was to recognize the signs [!]. If he found them, he could recreate the events, and then he would know what happened.  The same as reading the words in a book [!]. Reading each word and adding it to the next to build a sentence, then connecting the sentences to learn the story. The task was to find enough words….  Pike felt the pieces begin to fall into place. The words began to feel like a story.” (pp. 177, 179)

Joe Pike is convinced that there is meaning in texts even if he can’t see it yet.  I also love that his approach to reading is decidedly skeptical–not of the text–but of yourself!  You need to doubt yourself as a reader to become a good reader.  (One can almost see Crais working Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” when Pike realizes he has to rethink himself, the people he knows, and “everything he believed to be true”–but Pike would not get the reference though we do.) Perversely, CERTAINTY (knowing) is the end of LEARNING.  Only by doubt (not knowing) can one know–but then one must doubt again.  So the acquisition of knowledge is a bit like sailing in an archipelago where each island is an atoll of truth or knowledge but cannot be a place of permanent refuge.  You must set out from the current truth without seeing the next island and without any certainty you’ll set foot on “knowledgable land” again.  What a great journey.

Next week I post a copy of my syllabus (if I can solve a formatting problem) with some commentary on what I’m teaching and then a post on the single most abused term of academic jargon (and perhaps the most meaningless claim that educators make about teaching) “critical thinking.”  Also in coming weeks a meditation on George Pelecanos’ The Cut with some reflections on his career and an explanation of 4 kinds of first-person narrators (my own invention) and several types of readers. The “year of blogging” rolls on.



Filed under books and learning, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Detective Stories, Narrative Theory, Semiotics, Reading–a further case for popular literature

  1. Elizabeth Carr

    I just read your article in Education week about critical thinking and how it should be taught. I was wondering if you could send (post) your lesson and/or more information on the texts your use for those lessons in critical thinking. I am new to teaching at risk students in 9th grade, having previously taught reading to K-2 for 16 years.

  2. Pingback: “Once upon a time….:” Horizons of Expectation and two Japanese Short Stories | pulpteacher

  3. This blog site is extremely cool. How was it made !

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