In Gina Apostol’s novel Insurrecto, Magsalin, one of the protagonists, admits to “[getting] stuck in the faulty notion that everything in a book must be grasped” (Apostol 103). As someone who has taken many classes on literature at various ages (Ah, yes, good old Kindergarten literature), the idea of reading comprehension was something that haunted me, especially once books started becoming more complex, themes grew greater in scope, and poetry that didn’t exist for the sole purpose of Valentine’s day came into the picture. There have always been tests on reading comprehension in my experience, but they changed from checking if you’d read the book to making sure you’d understood the book, and that’s where things became tricky.
(What is understanding supposed to mean anyway?)
At this point, understanding a book was framed as something you should be able to do, a basic skill. Not knowing meant failing, and failing was something I desperately wanted to avoid, so I either spent a ridiculous amount of time dissecting every word, or I tried to look as inconspicuous as possible in class and hoped no one called on me. The discomfort of it all felt like a punishment.
Here’s this book, though, saying that understanding a book isn’t necessary for reading it, for experiencing it, for feeling that you’ve learned something from it. And this makes sense. We’re always being told that it’s impossible to know everything, so why should we be held to that standard when we read? My experience is not the same as the author’s experience, so there is no way that I can attach every one of the author’s intended meanings to every part of the book. I will notice the parts that speak to my life. I’ll learn, but the way I learn may not be exactly what’s intended. The book become my own, my own experience.
It’s easy to pick up a book and think, ah, yes, communism, or something, but is it really fair to narrow it down so much? Said book may not just be about communism, but about family, about friends, about the way the words are constructed on the page. How can you even begin to understand everything through just a single word, a single concept, when a book is a map of many at once, some intended by the authors, others perhaps not?
Of course, sometimes it’s important to try to understand, to take something that’s unfamiliar with you and explore. I don’t know about other people, but I always feel pressure to understand something the second it’s introduced to me, but that’s really not how it works, is it? I need time to process, to make connections, to slowly build up my understanding. Has reading Insurrecto made me an expert on the Philippine-American War? Not at all, but it’s given me a starting point. We should normalize taking time to understand.
To repeat – not understanding books is a part of the process of learning, is something that I run into all the time, and should really be mentioned more. What are your opinions about the concept of understanding? Share in the comments!