Would you like to do an Incomprehension Workshop?

When I set out to read a book from every country in a year nearly a decade ago, I realised something alarming. Many of the techniques and assumptions I learned at school and as a student of English literature at university were of limited use in the face of stories from markedly different traditions and cultures. With only 1.87 days to choose, read and blog about each book I featured on this site in 2012, I had no hope of doing the sort of diligent, contextual study that often unlocked the meaning of texts on my degree course. In the face of books built on drastically different ideas of what storytelling should be or imbued with values far removed from my own, I couldn’t rely on my cultural compass to keep me on track.

The only option was to embrace not knowing. I had to make peace with the fact that I wouldn’t understand everything and try to have a meaningful reading experience in spite of this.

This proved to be a revelation. Indeed, far from being a disadvantage, reading with the awareness that I wasn’t going to be able to make sense of everything set me free to have a much more curious, playful and thought-provoking engagement with texts. The more I went on, the more I discovered that paying attention to what I didn’t know could be a strength, teaching me not only about opportunities for further learning but also about my own conditioning, assumptions and blind spots.

As the years went by, I found myself developing a reading technique that centred rather than sidelined incomprehension. The idea of not knowing became a key thread in how I engaged with books of all kinds, as well as in my interactions with other people and things.

It was so transformative that I began to wonder if this technique might be of interest to others. I started talking about it, testing the idea out with a range of different people, and tweaking and developing it in response to their reactions. The encouragement I received led me to think there might be scope for a workshop on this way of reading and I spent a year or so considering the shape this could take.

During this time, my thoughts kept returning to the comprehension exercises I had done at school – those literature-class staples where you have to answer questions about an extract from a book. As I mentioned in a talk I gave on BBC Radio 4 last year, although these exercises help develop many useful skills, they carry the implication that if you can’t explain everything in a piece of writing you’re failing and that there is some single perfect reading of a text that we should be all be striving towards.

Last month, I was thrilled to be allowed to pilot this idea as part of my role as Literary Explorer in Residence at the UK’s Cheltenham Literature Festival, running my Incomprehension Workshop twice on the Huddle stage. There, two groups of around thirty intrepid readers joined me in some literary off-roading, applying my incomprehension techniques to a series of texts likely to be outside the comfort zone of most anglophone readers.

The discussions that ensued were fascinating. It was wonderful to see people letting go of the fear of failing to understand and instead embracing gaps in knowing as a necessary part of the reading process. We covered so much more than we would have done if we had simply set out to explain and make sense of the texts.

Since the pilot, the idea has continued to grow. I’m delighted to have been invited to run the workshop for some sessions with humanities teachers in the UK.

On the subject of which, in celebration of the ten-year anniversary of my life-changing quest to read a book from every country, I’m offering to run one free virtual Incomprehension Workshop for up to 30 participants anywhere in the world in 2022. If you would like to take part, please leave a comment below or drop me a line (ann[at]annmorgan.me) telling me a little bit about you and why you read. 

14 responses

  1. I would love to do your workshop. Inspired by your reading the world quest, I have embarked on a quest to read at least one book by every Irish author writing in English since the start of the 20th century. I have struggled with some of the books deemed to be classics and have wondered how to overcome my blockages. It may be that u should stop struggling to understand and analyse and run with embracing my incomprehension

  2. I’m still not sure I quite understand the concept you’re discussing. I do want to thank you. Your ‘year of reading internationally’ led me to expand my mystery fiction reading. There are cultural, political and societal differences that I am finding very interesting. Murder is a crime almost everywhere but the way that it happens, how it’s handled in different countries is fascinating. Thank you again.

  3. I would love to be part of such workshop. The theme of incomprehension when reading a text from different cultures and points of view can be unsettling at first. The more I read a variety of fiction from different countries, the more intrigued I get and the more I learn.
    Exploring in more detail the parts I don’t understand well provides the fuel for researching and learning more about other cultures and points of views. I find it exhilarating.

  4. I would love to be a part of this workshop! Diving into incomprehension sort of defines my life — as a 68 year-old retired primary school teacher, mother of four strong-willed sons, caretaker of an infant grandson, eternal language student, and a literary translator by training. I would love to undertake such a study in the company of other avid readers and explorers!

  5. I’d love to take part in the workshop. I like reading books from around the world, and often feel there are things I’m missing. I’m really intrigued by the thought of embracing that – it could add a whole new dimension to reading.

  6. I would love to do this workshop! I am a translator of children’s literature who often finds myself trying to articulate the value of reading the world, but time pressures too often leave me reading in a rut myself. It’s been ages since I’ve taken a headlong dive into the unknown, embracing readerly disorientation and discovery. (And I cherish A Year of Reading the World and would love to meet you!)

  7. Hi Ann,

    I would love to be a part of this exciting workshop. I love to read regional literature of my native country, India. This broadens my worldview and diminishes prejudices often portrayed in the media about a certain group of people or a way of life.

  8. Ann, I am interested in your class. I’m a lifelong reader and I would love to learn more about how not understanding the culture I’m reading/asking questions about what’s happening can make my reading experience fuller. I work in a public library in the US & am active on Library Thing. In 2022 I plan to participate an a Reading Asia challenge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: