I recently read that discussing the contents of a reading passage with others can give you new insights into the text that you might not have realized on your own, increasing your reading comprehension. Although I came across this information in an IEA publication about developing reading comprehension in elementary school students, I think this applies to all readers, regardless of age.
As an active member of two book clubs, I have experienced first hand how discussing a written text with others can expand the reading experience and comprehension in multiple ways.
ANTICIPATION: When you know you will be discussing a book with others, it adds a sense of accountability; not only do you feel obligated to finish the book, intentionally or not, you tend to pay more attention to the plot and writing style so you will have something worthwhile to contribute to the conversation.
EXPANSION: During the book club gathering, the story, which up until that moment only existed as an internal relationship between you, your brain, and the author’s creation, is transformed into an external experience through the discussion.
INSIGHTS: Someone may recall details of the novel you had forgotten about, jogging your memory and deepening your understanding of the whole story. Others may have a totally different interpretation of the novel, or parts of the novel, providing insights you might not have come to on your own. Your insights might do the same for someone else. As you talk about your reading experience, your own ideas about the novel may start to crystallize in ways you hadn’t expected.
PERSPECTIVE: We all engage with story through our own lens, bringing our life experiences along for the literary ride. Thus, the book club discussion becomes a journey of exploring often complicated topics, while discovering each other’s perspectives, seeing where our views overlap or differ, and providing a chance to expand or rethink our own views. Dang! No wonder book clubs are so popular!
However, this process can also be painful. For example, when a novel is about a heavy topic—which is quite often the case in literature—the intersection between fact and fiction becomes razor thin. This can be confrontational. Yet knowing that we are reading a work of fiction provides a sense of distance from difficult topics, enabling us to lower the armor we wear in the real world, and expose feelings we usually keep under lock and key. This places us in an emotionally vulnerable state. Combine that vulnerable emotional state with a book club discussion, and we have the potential to process the tragedies and challenges of being human, together. Book club as therapy!
Such was my experience when discussing Bewilderment, by Richard Powers. I had the opportunity to hear him speak about this book at the Crossing Borders festival in The Hague back in November of 2021, but I didn’t read the book until much later.
The novel felt like a personal journey to childhood, reconnecting with innocence and the loss thereof. We are taken on this remarkable journey through the perspective of Theo and his son Robin.
Once you meet the nine-year-old Robin—a brilliant, sensitive, and curious boy being raised by his father—you know that your heart is not only going to be ripped wide open, but pulverized by the weight of his questions. While a number of his questions are about his mother, other questions revolve around why adults have caused so much damage to the planet, and why they don’t do anything to make amends/ protect what’s left. Talk about confrontational! Consider this passage where Robin has accessed the internet and discovered that rivers used by migratory birds are being continually poisoned by chemical run off from farms, destroying habitat and causing mutations in amphibians.
Robin’s father Theo, confronted by his son’s discovery, thinks the following: The world had become something no schoolchild should be allowed to discover. Heartbreakingly true in this context. But then Powers uses his writing genius to twist the knife a little deeper through dialogue:
“Do people know this?”
“I think so. Mostly.”
“And they don’t fix it because . . . ?”
The standard answer—economics—was insane.
p.182 Bewilderment, by Richard Powers
This passage gutted me and I entered that emotionally vulnerable state I described earlier. The topic of environmental degradation is so much a part of our lives these days that the only difference between fact and fiction is that this particular conversation between a father and son is between two fictitious characters, but could easily be between just about any real father and son alive today. The reason we’re destroying the homes of all living things on earth (besides, perhaps, some tenacious amoebas and cockroaches), all boils down to that one word: money.
Discussing this novel was confronting, but it also created a safe place to share our feelings of dread about the state of the environment—past, present, and future—while creating a bit of distance since the characters were fictional. Remarkably, we were still able to find shreds of hope in the story and in our own lives, reiterating ways we can participate in the solution: Education, voting, diligence in our shopping patterns, holding corporations and governments accountable where possible, becoming vegan or vegetarian, considering our own sphere of influence in our transport, our work, schools, communities, and homes. And the youth! Oh, the youth! May there be many Robins (fictional) and Greta Thunbergs (oh so real) in this world! It was a bewildering discussion, but also uplifting.
Bewilderment was also true to its name when it came to Robin’s astrophysicist father Theo, and his penchant for storytelling. Thanks to Richard Powers (and vocabulary.com), I can tell you that an astrophysicist is a scientist who specializes in “studying space, planets, stars, and the universe.” Mini chapters throughout Bewilderment are about Theo’s bedtime stories. We’re not talking about reading out of a chapter book. Theo’s stories take Robin on astrophysical journeys to planets with other life forms, and explore the problems the planet’s chemistry poses to its inhabitants. Although the idea of looking for a planet B as an alternative for earth would be a simple way to label these stories, there was clearly much more going on.
Above: Hubble image of the giant nebula NGC 3603 and new star life stages. Source: Nasa.gov
We asked ourselves if these mini-stories were Richard Power’s way of providing coded messages for the reader to puzzle through until that aha moment hits. We had a few conjectures, but it seemed like the aha moment had been sucked into a black hole.
Remember how this post started? Discussing reading passages with others can expand your understanding? A few days after the book club gathering, Paulina (deKoning) Vanderbilt, a treasured member who wasn’t able to attend that day, shared her thoughts on the book, along with her conjectures on what all those mini-stories of planetary journeys could be about. Paulina is a teacher, an environmentalist, and a highly creative person, so naturally, she didn’t just send us a WhatsApp with her thoughts. She came up with an artistic poster to pull that aha moment out of said black hole and bring Theo’s (Richard Powers’s) chaos into order. With her permission, I am sharing Pauline’s drawing here, which extended the discussion and our level of understanding. Be forewarned: It contains spoilers.
WARNING! THE FOLLOWING IMAGE CONTAINS SPOILERS! DO NOT READ UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED BEWILDERMENT!
Bewilderment is a story of our time, a story of a father and son, of children we diagnose and medicate, of love and loss, of innocence and loss of innocence, and, on behalf of the natural world, a desperate cry for help. The story is still inside me, like a collection of micro-nutrients that are slowly being absorbed into my bloodstream to inform the shape of my thoughts in a way that reminds me to breathe and do my part.
Have you read Bewilderment? Yes? Then please share in the comments what you think of Paulina’s conjectures about the planetary stories. Did you have a similar reaction to this book as I did? Was there the opportunity for healing among the pain?
Environmental fiction provides an accessible way to discuss the real environmental tragedies unfolding around us, and help us accept that they are real and need our attention. From there, baby steps. Walking. Jogging. Running. Leaping. Bounding. Progress—all in our own unique way—toward saving what’s left.