Author Archives

I teach medieval English at the University of Bonn, and write about literature, food, immigration, and dance.

Reading Lessons

Type by VectorLab / Getty, Illustration by Homestead

Irina Dumitrescu | How We Read: Tales, Fury, Nothing, Sound | punctum books | July 2019 | 12 minutes (3,118 words)

 

I have forgotten how to read. It isn’t the first time. I have forgotten before and I will forget again. In other words, I am still learning how to read.

“Read,” like “love” or “think,” has a thousand meanings pressed into one deceptively elementary verb. We use it in a way that tends towards simplicity. It is the connection of sounds and concepts to standardized squiggles, to trails of ink on squares of paper, scratches carved into sticks, glowing lines of curved neon, careful stitches poked through a tight canvas. It can seem a basic skill, at least to those who have left the learning of letters behind.

Watching my son learn it now, I begin to understand how daunting a task it is, even given a phonetic language with a small alphabet, even with all the plasticity of a child’s brain at his disposal. Learning to read is a years-long series of internalizing rules and their many exceptions, of tiny modulations and adjustments. At first I thought it would be a matter of recognizing 26 letters. Then I saw that he must navigate upper and lower cases, print and cursive, different typefaces and hands, the sounds rendered by certain combinations of letters, umlauts and double S’s, unmarked short and long vowels, and the vagaries of foreign words and their unpredictable pronunciations.

So much work requires attention. My son approaches the challenge of decoding the world with intense concentration, straining to squeeze out meaning from each word and image. He is spellbound by anything legible, whether a phrase in bold, clear type or a comic strip that communicates just enough plot to fascinate, and will stare at it for what feels like ages. He is laboring hard, I know, but I still envy his power of absorption. Sometimes it feels like my practice as a reader has made me faster, but not consistently better. When I think of my own journey of learning to read, I am in fact thinking of a long process of learning and forgetting how to be with texts slowly, intimately, deeply.

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Swan, Late

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad.

Irina Dumitrescu | Longreads | February 2017 | 23 minutes (5873 words)

 

“Perfect is boring.”
— George Balanchine

I discovered I couldn’t dance when I was ten years old. My parents had signed me up for a ballet course in Toronto with a dour, shriveled Romanian teacher, chosen no doubt because of our shared totalitarian traumas. In her class I felt uncoordinated, impossibly gawky. My clearest memory is of trying to accomplish a gentle downward sweep of the hand. My teacher performed the movement. As I attempted to imitate her, she said, over and over, “but do it gracefully!” I could not figure out how to do it gracefully. I could not even see the difference between her gesture and mine. I came to the logical conclusion: I was terminally ungraceful. In fact, I couldn’t dance at all.

I quit ballet. I did have to dance again when I took part in the yearly audition held by a local school for the arts. I was terrible at acting and drawing too, but the dance test was my Waterloo. A teacher demonstrated a complicated choreography at the front of the room while we waited patiently in rows. Then he gave us a cue, and as if by magic, all of the other children repeated the combination perfectly. I, on the other hand, was a mess of arms and legs and confused desperation. I managed with twisted precision to be always facing in the opposite direction from the other kids, stumbling into them dangerously.

My inability to dance became a matter of faith, something I believed in unquestioningly for the next two decades. But I did so with pride and stubbornness. Everything about ballet felt wrong to me: all that Pepto-Bismol pink, ribbons and tulle, polished princesses executing their steps in martial unison, tight little buns behind tight little faces. Ballet represented hard beauty, ungenerous towards human flaws or quirks. It was a tyranny of perfection.

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