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The Lost Tools of Reading

I was asked recently whether The Lost Tools of Writing can be used for literary analysis.

The answer is a whole-hearted yes, LTW can be used for Literary analysis. But be careful. Analysis should follow, not precede, living interaction.

Therefore, properly speaking, one of the things LTW does very effectively is TEACH STUDENTS HOW TO READ literature! When we teach children to read, I believe we err by turning it into an academic exercise too early.

Discussion of themes is only profitable to a child who has already been thinking about themes.

Discussion of character development is premature and counterproductive in a reader who doesn’t care about the characters but is driven to get a good grade. Such a child will never be a good reader and the teacher will help ensure that.

The same holds true when you want to analyze plots and settings and schemes and tropes and whatever else you want to analyze.

By engaging your child in a discussion of whether Scout should have crawled under the fence into the neighbor’s garden, or whether Huck should have helped Jim escape, or whether the youth should have shared the ass’s shadow with the driver, you necessarily will talk about settings, characters, themes, plots, etc. etc.

But you’ll do it informally – naturally. You’ll do it in a dynamic, living way that would not distress the poor author whose book has been killed and lies splayed before the student on the table, eliciting soulish cries of, “ooh, gross.”

If you want, you can even break into a discussion about a plot or something later on – at a moment of readiness, one of those so-called “teachable moments.”

For example, you might be discussing whether Scout should have crawled under the fence.

Now watch this, because it has layers of meaning: You could then ask, Why did Scout crawl under the fence? And why did that happen? And why did that happen? Etc.

Then you could ask, what were the effects of Scout crawling under the fence? And what did that lead to? And then what? etc.

Why would you take them through that silly childish exercise, you ask? Because I’m silly and childish, for one thing. But also because story telling is essentially silly and childish. And please note this:

The essence of the narrative sense is the unraveling and identification of causes and effects. In other words, the plot is the series of events that leads to (causes) a culmination plus the events, often also a series, that flows out of (is caused by) the culmination.

So if you want to do a plot analysis, just talk about why things happened and what caused what. Do this and you will find you are playing with a living animal instead of pinning a dead one to a bulletin board.

In short, you are doing literary analysis when you use The Lost Tools of Writing. If you feel like there would be some value in introducing the technical language of literary analysis, you certainly could do so, but I would urge you to do it in a dynamic, concrete, practical way, and not in an abstract, theoretical way.

Abstract, theoretical thought is for people who have lots of concrete, dynamic experience with living ideas. It is usually best for college students or juniors and seniors in high school who have some use for it beyond getting a good grade so they can go to a good college where they will learn how to teach unwitting high school students how to hate reading by distracting them from reading to doing artificial scientific literary analysis of dead texts.

For those of you who have been involved in the discussion of the difference between organic and mechanical teaching, I think this provides an example of the difference.

Never lose your confidence in the ability of the living text to tell its own story and make its own point. Don’t let the scientific presuppositions of modern education distract you from the spiritual realities that bring so much joy to true learning!

As an aside, if you teach grade school students and have wondered if The Lost Tools of Writing is for you, I would suggest that it is. But probably not for your students. If you want them to learn how to read (as opposed to decoding), you want the tools provided in the tradition of classical rhetoric, now embodied in The Lost Tools of Writing. You can pass them on to your students if you know them yourself.

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