There is something profoundly exciting about new experiences. I am not talking about your first time seeing a new place or eating a new food. I am talking about the internal feeling that occurs when something new “happens” to you, almost like unlocking a new emotion or way of seeing things. Interestingly, this also seems to occur from the most mundane or unexpected experiences, and I certainly was anticipating a mundane experience when assigned to read the short book Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli.
This book did not stare at me from the shelf, beckoning me to open its pages and hear what it had to say. I bought it online, picked it up, and tossed it in my backpack never to be seen again until I was assigned to begin reading it. I didn’t even look at the cover. Upon that first reading assignment, I still thought nothing of it. I waited until I finished my daily chores and other coursework before finally, begrudgingly, opening it. I was supposed to practice “Attentive Reading” or whatever that means, I thought. I expected to be bored by such a thin paperback authored by a “Modern Writer”. I’ve read McCarthy, Orwell, Hemmingway, even Marcus Aurelius and never took notes or annotated. I went into the experience with one foot out the door and ready to be disappointed, but the remarkable was awaiting me, just a few pages away.
“Why did you come to the United States? We didn’t have a clear answer. No one ever does.” (Luiselli, 9). This line stopped me in my tracks. I was confused, annoyed, even a little excited. I thought, “How could you make this claim?” and for the first time felt compelled to re-read and to write something down. I took note of this line thinking of how I would use it against the author later, by tearing down their ridiculous statement and emerging victorious over a text I initially didn’t deem worthy of my time. I highlighted, underlined, and argued. I turned the page expecting more statements to disagree with, and I got exactly what I was asking for.
As I kept reading, the more I saw the author try to appeal to my emotions. Swearing, generalizations, and unfounded claims continued throughout the text, and with each one, I took note, thought of how I would argue this, and excitedly awaited my next challenge. Thats when I first realized, halfway through the book with notes filling its pages, that this book was trying to grab me, to make me focus on it, to challenge me. Without even realizing it, I had become hooked and had begun reading each word more intently than the last, looking for a meaning behind them. It was working.
This was the first book I have read that I wanted to talk about. With every chapter I finished, a new conversation piece emerged. I spoke with my wife daily about what I was reading, how it made me feel, and wondered if her own thoughts would validate mine. It made me think more about immigration law, the border, and the enforcement of it all. If I wanted to beat the author at this “game” I was playing with her, then I’d need the knowledge to do so. I researched these topics, and the more I did the more I understood what was happening in the text and to me.
Throughout my reading, I had the nagging question as to why this author only offered complaints and not solutions. I thought, “How does this help anyone?” but upon finishing it I realized something that may change the way I read forever. Luiselli is an author; she is not a policy expert, a politician, or a lawyer. She did not write this book to be the sacred answer to the problem or to change the world. She wrote it to make people think, and it worked. I have never thought more about immigration or the border in my life than I have these past few weeks. I sat back closing the last page thinking I have been bamboozled. This author wanted me to be annoyed, angered, and confused. She wanted to me to feel the way she felt about the situation these children are in. She did her job well, and I finally felt it: a new feeling, a new experience.
The act of attentive reading cannot be achieved without challenge. In books like Tell Me How It Ends, where the horrors and trials of reality are committed to text, it is important to let the reader fight it, to disagree, and to fall in love with it. These kinds of experiences, where the reader can discover a new way of seeing the world where they are, can be found in any age, and in homes, classrooms, apartments, and park benches around the world. If we are to hope that the readers of the future will be able to read attentively—to tolerate failure, to entertain problems, to be challenged, and to know that they are those things in their own mind—then we must let them. They must discover it on their own. The moment you instruct someone how to interpret a text and how to feel about it is the moment that something very special, will have been lost.
Luiselli, Valeria. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions. Coffee House, 2017.