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. 

34 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.

  9. I would love to be a part of this! As a Spanish speaker teaching Spanish Language and Literature (International Baccalaureate) to teenagers in the US I think it would have a ripple effect on my students! I am always torn between reading in Spanish and in English, between reading novels originally written in Spanish, written in English or translated.

  10. I would love to be a part of your workshop, Ann. Its subject matter interests me deeply. Camus said that you will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of and you will never live if you only look for the meaning of life.
    I adapt and employ the latter in all my reading as well. Not knowing what a text means exactly is the thrill of it. I assume cultural and semantic gaps. This is perhaps why I can read from anywhere in the world without any prejudice or preconceived notions. I know I don’t know everything and my understanding of the writing will never be the same as what the author intended.
    Isn’t that true of all writing, especially of all good poetry – it speaks to everyone within their own understanding of it. It can be interpreted a million ways and still be beautiful.

  11. This sounds fascinating, I’d be interested in taking part. I’m reading and review books, as well looking at film, art and other aspects of culture from every nation worldwide.

  12. This sounds so interesting, I’d love to take part. I read your book way back (can’t believe your project was 10 years ago) and have read more widely since, although not so widely as you! I moved to Australia almost 3 years ago and have encountered a wide range of Aussie authors – including several Aboriginal authors who I’d not come across in UK. My lockdown reading has been largely filling my knowledge gaps in my new country but I continue to search for literature across the world. After all, my travels (like everyone else’s) came to an abrupt halt in 2020 so I’ve travelled through books!

  13. I’d love to join your workshop! I loved your idea and been following your blog since I came across your ted talk. I speak 5 languages (PT, CN, ES, EN, DE) and always try to read in these languages by authors from that native language. Reading authors from different parts of the world feels like traveling to a new place and experiencing the culture from the inside.

  14. I would love to take part! I first came across your blog about 5 or 6 years ago and found it fascinating. At this point, I had been an EFL teacher in Germany for a few years. I’m now back at uni here in Germany, studying for a degree in Anglophone Studies and Communication Science, which keeps me very busy. I’m bilingual, having grown up in both the UK and Germany, so the differences in literature and reading habits are fascinating to study.

  15. I love to analyze and ask why an author mighr have used thus or that word. But it becomes more fascinating when the added layer of translation comes into play. The Reading the World project, which I am doing, has opened my eyes to translators per se and allowed me to assess ny own work. I also speak and read several languages. Would be honoured to take part.

  16. Happy 10th anniversary, Ann! Thank you for sharing your journey and broadening and enriching our lives in the process as well. Thank you for offering the gift of your workshop. I’m interested in being a part of it to be able to tap into new perspectives, deepen the reading experience and to better understand our world. I am a lifelong reader and writer living in the U.S. inspired by your project. May the new year be filled with continued exploration and discovery for all of us!

  17. I would like to participate in your workshop. I took your Year of Reading in a slightly different direction, using each book to prepare to visit the country, and then rereading the book on my return to reflect on how much more I understood the people and history. But incomprehension often persisted, even after traveling in a country. I look forward to learning to embrace the incomprehension, especially since travel is now curtailed.

  18. I’m a lifelong reader from South Africa, and I’d love to take your workshop. I also teach grade 8 and 9 English and the greatest challenge my learners face is linked to reading and comprehension.

    We have a reading crisis in our country that is directly related to incomprehension. A few years back, tests revealed that 78% of grade 4 pupils in South Africa fell below the lowest level on the PIRLS scale ( Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) – meaning, in effect, that they cannot understand what they’re reading, in their home language.
    A workshop of this nature would be empowering.

  19. Would love to participate in your ‘incomprehensiion ‘workshop.As a child my polyglot grandmother taught me not just another language, but how to to learn (related) languages (immersion, etymologies, Grimm’s laws of phonetic shifts). With these key tools hard-wired in my brain, it was a delight to spend my first decades of adulthood living working and reading new languages in European countries. Becoming fluent in my mother’s native tongue within 3 months was the most bizarre, without ‘knowing’ words, I could hear and answer. and realized the brain is not one’s private, property – more a murky window. Reading in foreign languages has the constant flavor of unknowable complexities lurking everywhere. Understanding first hand the inherently impossible nature of translation, reading English translations of works from wildly different cultures (I.e. Japanese, Russian) increases the feeling that what I ‘get’ is just a fleeting waft, the evocative fragrance of a neighbor’s meal.

  20. Ann, I would love to join your Incomprehension Workshop. I’m a lifelong lover of exploring all countries in both fiction & non-fiction. My highest loves in fiction are Jose Saramago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Naguib Mahfouz, Terry Pratchett, Maya Angelou, Anne Lamont, Jeanette Winterson, Toni Morrison, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Kiran Desai, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Elena Ferranti, Harper Lee, Isabel Allende, Paulo Coelho, Salman Rushdie, Don Miguel Ruiz, Carlos Castaneda, Yann Martel & more. I so look forward to your workshop!

  21. I would do this workshop in a heartbeat. During my job as librarian, I traveled all over the world–including the developing world–and I always read books from those places. I am currently in love with Albanian women’s writing! Also Nigerian writing–a treasure trove. I met you when you were at the Mortenson Center on International Library Programs at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and interviewed you. I have been following you ever since. I would be willing to take good notes and send my comments to the U of I library school or American Library Association–or not. Barbara Jones

  22. In terms of “incomprehension”, to me that is taking a deep relaxing breath, opening the book or laptop, and reading. Not nervous about not understanding every word or cultural context. That is the adventure. What I love to do is engage someone from that culture and ask what a particular word, custom, etc., means. It is great way to engage in a conversation!

    • Would love to join. After the BLM protests in 2020 all the papers were full of books to read written by black people who I’d either already read and/or were by Anglo-American writers. I decided to start looking for books from different cultures and thanks in a big part to your blog over half the books I read in 2021 were from non-AngloAmerican writers and 30% were translated. I read some incredible books and want this to continue. Your workshop sounds an excellent way to explore other cultures through their books.

  23. Would love to join. I’m a school leader based in the UK working on opening international schools overseas. Pre covid this took me to China and the Gulf, where I came to realise that I often failed to appreciate the nuances of conversation.

  24. I would love to join this workshop if you offer it. I’m a Teen Librarian and find this concept fascinating. I would love to be able to pass it along to my patrons.

  25. I would love to join. I am Italian, my background is languages and I read in It, E,F,D and Spanish. I usually read classics (so much to read), as I have found contemporary books often disappointing. Then I started to learn Spanish and that opened up a whole new world of books to read before me. I was so ignorant! This is where I came across your idea of reading the world. Funny enough I think the idea of incomprehension does fit more advanced language learners, as you always get to a point, when you become proficient in a language that you stop checking for each and every word you read and you need to guess from the content for example. Great blog Ann, I love it.

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