This column usually focuses on writers
and poets, but that’s
only half of the conversation. The other half, of course,
is the reader. And so I recently spoke with Abdi Ali who
spends his days encouraging a new generation of readers to discover
what literature can bring to their lives.
Ali is a teacher of humanities at the Boston
Arts Academy, a pilot school that is the city’s first and only high school for
the visual and performing arts. He has taught there since
the school’s opening in 1998 and is the founder of and faculty
advisor for Slateblue Arts, the student art and literary magazine.
Ali is also an advanced doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate
School of Education.
What he wants his students to recognize
is how literature can give us words for what we have no words
for. He mentions a two-line poem by Louise Bogan called Solitary
Observation Brought Back from a Sojourn in Hell, that reads: “At
midnight tears/Run in your ears.”
“That kind of reading experience where you might not even
know who the author is and you might not know the intent of the
work, can still have something to say about your life.. You
articulate it, but you find articulation here.”
It’s that kind of deeply transformative
experience of reading that Ali tries to make possible for his
“The teacher in me is always trying to find texts that do
for my students what books do for me,” he says. Among
the books that he has seen make a strong impression on his students
are White Noise by Don DeLillo and Flight by Sherman Alexie.
As for his own reading, Ali characterizes
himself as an “unusual” reader.
“Reading, for me, is a private pleasure. I have friends
who read a lot of fiction recommended by their friends. But
for me reading is not so public. It’s a very private
activity. I’m probably more fussy about what I read,
so I take my time with recommendations.
“Some writers never let me down. I’m
very forgiving of them, like Michael Ondaatje and poets like
David Ferry, Thom Gunn, and Robert Pinsky.
“I read like a writer. I want to read something that
takes me to someplace at a high level of language. The first
or second sentence has to grab me, though sometimes I’m open
to the first paragraph. I read to be informed but more importantly,
I read to be surprised,”
Ali and I talk about how, at its best, reading becomes a deep conversation
among book, author, and reader. He mentions the poet and
critic Mary Kinzie’s image of the reader reading, but at
the same time, being read.
“We can have a connection with the part of the work that
is reading us and telling us who we are. It’s a kind
of reading experience that is saying something about our own lives
that we couldn’t articulate but that we see being articulated
in the book.
“I think we’re all seeking some language, some metaphor,
some word to say the things we’ve felt profoundly, deeply.
The act of reading is our best chance of that.”
It ‘s a kind of connection that, Ali admits, doesn’t
happen for everyone, but then there will be the moment when it
happens for one of his students.
“The student for whom it does waits
for me after class to talk. Then I know.”