I’m currently re-reading Notable American Women by Ben Marcus, which came about from a conversation I had with some students the other day. I had been describing the book to them, and one of the students suggested that we should all read it together. First off, it’s an amazing feeling to have students want to read what you give them in class let alone have them ask for extra reading, but they did and I was only too happy to oblige them. Unfortunately, this also forced me to look back at myself as a student in college.
I had read NAW eight years or so ago while I was still in college and can remember enjoying it and finding it intellectually stimulating, but in retrospect, I believe I enjoyed it because a professor had suggested it to me and I wanted so bad to read it, “get it,” and look “smart.” While I did understand some of it, my drive to look the part of an academic prevented an opportunity for me to focus on what I didn’t know and the chance to improve. Instead of accepting what I didn’t know, or understand, and ask questions, I focused on what I did understand. As a student, I was keenly aware when I was getting into an uncomfortable academic situation and would avoid it by focusing on an idea/concept I was comfortable with.
How much more could I have grown as a scholar had I accepted what I was lacking and worked to improve it? Yet many of us, as students or in our everyday life, do this. We hide behind what we know and avoid exposure to “the new” because we’re afraid of making mistakes, especially when the pressures of grades and looking smart in front of peers are a factor. Yet mistakes are where learning takes place. Mistakes drive learning through a desire to know and perfect our understanding of the world. However, if and when students fall back on what they already know, and in a sense plagiarize their our knowledge, there is no growth.
It is easy to fall into this trap with NAW given its metaphysical look at language and humorous rewritten history. Marcus makes it difficult to differentiate if he’s making a metaphorical point or simply working in the absurd. His quick movements from literal to figurative and metaphorical to absurd challenges the reader’s analysis; forcing them, more times than not, to step back and accept it for what it is; a linguistic adventure. A challenge that asks you to see elements of our world that are invisible, to touch the intangible, to be uncomfortable.
Even though I am a better reader than I was the last time I read it, NAW is still a tough read. And while I know I still won’t see all of the intricacies, my acceptance of what I don’t know will lead to a better reading experience.