Student Voices: A Senior’s Perspective on a Unfamiliar Text, Using the Reading Process Paper

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In today’s post I bring you another student’s, Ali (name is changed to protect identity), reading process paper. What is unique about Ali’s paper is he is a senior at my school who has never done this sort of writing exercise. What I particularly enjoyed about reading Ali’s final draft was the honesty he appeared to put forth as he processed what he was reading and reflecting on the process over all. Ali would be considered ‘high-flyer,’ so I know it might be easy for teachers to dismiss this post as simply showing off a great student’s work. But I would argue, while Ali had the tools to do this work already, we should not discount the metacognitive work he was asked to do. This is the sort of mental work Ali has not had to do much. He’s good at school. Some information comes easily to him; he meets deadlines, and he is willing to study for subjects he finds troublesome. Still, the reflective process the reading process paper demands was foreign to Ali, which he comments on briefly in his composition. Before you proceed ahead, if you need a reminder of what the process paper is all about and my commentary on Sheridan Blau’s work, go here and here.

by Ali Arashi

Introduction:

            Throughout my life, I have never been a dedicated reader in a traditional sense. I do not seek out books to read simply for pleasure or the experience of reading; instead, I look for writing based on my current interests. Consequently, I am mostly drawn to articles, nonfiction, and shorter pieces as they allow me to expand my knowledge on my hobbies and better myself more directly. Nevertheless, I enjoy reading classics such as Brave New World and The Grapes of Wrath. Despite my experience with these novels, I would still hesitate to call myself a deep reader.

Reading #1

To say the least, my first reading of Kurt Vonnegut’s essay, A Fate Worse Than Death, was rather interesting. In fact, I do not quite think I have ever read anything like this; Vonnegut’s writing style stands out as personal, perhaps as a friend may talk to another friend. As a whole, the essay seems to be reviewing the reason for which humans choose to endure intense suffering over death. From the Roman crucifixions, Russian serfdom, and the slave trade, Vonnegut takes into account different times humans have persevered through immensely troubled times in which suicide, or death, may have seemed like a better option. The first page, Vonnegut uses his recent dream, in which humanity meets its demise at the hands of atomic warfare, to introduce the idea that there is no punishment worse than death; in other words, humans will choose any fate over death, no matter how drastically awful their lives may become. This page struck me with discord. Ask any of my friends and they will be sure to tell you that I am quick to choose suicide as an option when considering ourselves in an apocalyptic or otherwise life-ruining situation. As a whole, I believe suicide is a person’s choice and death is often the right answer in many dire situations. I also stand by assisted suicide and think there is no dishonor is choosing to end one’s own life with the right intentions. Nevertheless, this essay effectively countered my belief and has even changed my mind a great deal. For example, the next two pages of Vonnegut’s essay focus on historical examples in which humans have chosen to endure suffering over death. I am not quite sure if I am being impractical or naive, saying that suicide is the right option in awful scenarios, but this page surely makes me feel so. I wonder, if I were tossed into the Holocaust, would I push on or would I find a quick exit for myself? Again, Vonnegut’s writing remains easy going while also expertly delivering his point. The next three pages continue with examples but focus on humanity’s recent widespread rejection of such atrocities, attributing this shift in attitude to the invention of television and subsequently, increased worldwide communication. He precedes this statement with the inclusion that all ethnic or racial groups have at one time or another been oppressed, whether or not they collectively recall it. Vonnegut expands his point by explaining that wars have been fought and atrocities have been committed because of humanity’s previous lack of understanding regarding those they are harming. He uses the Vietnam War as an example of the first war in which soldiers have truly understood their enemies as actual humans, rather than as horrific bogeymen. He argues that had this understanding existed in previous times, atrocities such as WWI, WWII, and the atomic bombings of Japan would have never occurred because people would have understood that they were bringing humanity’s greatest bane, death, unto others just like them. His final two pages wrap the argument up with a positive note: humans are understanding that killing is awful because, through television, they are able to understand that there truly is no fate worse than death. Vonnegut finishes the essay with his belief that humanity will continue to prosper in the coming millennia because of our almost innate and collective recognition that there truly is no fate worse than death.

Reading #2:

Not adhering to the guideline, I have now read A Fate Worse Than Death about three hours since I first had done so. I now notice a few lines that are integral to a greater understanding of the text. I find that Vonnegut’s dissection of soldiers adhering to the motto “‘Death before Dishonor’” to be the perfect rebuttal to any counterargument. This point, that soldiers are the humans who choose death as an honor because they are serving their country is a seemingly solid counter to Vonnegut’s well-supported statement that humans will endure any suffering in order to survive. Soldiers willingly fight for what they believe in and accept the great chance of death as a part of the deal. Yet, Vonnegut dismantles this counter argument by the following that a soldier’s understanding of death only made sense “when military death was what happened to the soldier on the right or the left of you — or in front of you — or in back of you,” continuing that nowadays, “military death now can easily mean the death of everything.” In other words, due to humanity’s creation of nuclear arms, a soldier fears death just like any other human because they understand that dying can very well lead to the destruction of all humans, whereas in the past, it was simply the soldiers giving their lives on the battlefield. This inclusion effectively supports Vonnegut’s argument that humans understand death more than ever because of the creation of almost instantaneous communication through television. He takes note of this by writing that “thanks to modern communications, the people of every industrialized nation are nauseated by war by the time they are ten years old.”

My second reading also provided me an opportunity to consider the following line more closely: “I told you a crazy dream I had — about The New Yorker Magazine and this cathedral. I will tell you a sane dream now.” As I mentioned in my first reading reflection, Vonnegut introduces his argument through the use of a recent dream of his as an anecdote. The dream consists of humanity’s impending doom as a result of atomic warfare, and Vonnegut is about to deliver an inciteful final message to humans gathered in a cathedral. He ends the essay with a similar dream in which he witnesses humanity, in yet another cathedral, a thousand years into the future, and questions them as to how our species had managed to survive another millennia, despite the great challenges they must have faced. They answer in correspondence with Vonnegut’s argument that they survived by “preferring life over death for themselves and other at every opportunity.” Though it may initially seem like Vonnegut’s way to put a bow on his argument with a dream that anecdotally sums up his beliefs, it is actually much more. This second and final dream is quite reasonably an epilogue or sequel to the first dream; humanity has persevered past many hardships and even total destruction, such as the impending atomic demise faced in the first dream. All this simply because of our undeniable and almost innate understanding that, again, there is no fate worse than death. Had one simply read the two dreams in succession, it may have seemed as though they were science fiction pieces. Yet, with Vonnegut’s essay slapped in between the two, they quickly become the reader’s perspective on Vonnegut’s argument before and after his convincing persuasion.

Reading #3 & #4:

I have now completed both my third and fourth readings, placing a day between each. Though I have now read the essay several times over, I believe my understanding has grown the greatest in these last two. In fact, my two final readings have brought to me an epiphany regarding the piece: it seems that rather than this piece being written simply as Vonnegut’s vessel to transport his argument, it is actually an essay meant to assuage the world he lived in. I have made this conclusion by noticing that Vonnegut is writing in 1982, the peak of the Cold War. During this period, the awful relations between Soviet Russia and the United States brought the thought of nuclear warfare into the minds of the majority. It seems almost inevitable that Vonnegut is writing to give hope to a troubled population. This becomes evident through his mentioning of atomic warfare in the essay’s first page when he writes, “I am sure you are sick and tired of hearing how all living things sizzle and pop inside a radioactive fireball.” He makes it his objective to dispel the worry of a nuclear crisis by writing, “if some of you are worried about being hydrogen-bombed, you are merely fearing death. “ With the understanding of Vonnegut’s true intentions, one can appreciate this essay much more. Rather than concocting a plan or conjuring a story of how nuclear bombs could never destroy the world, Vonnegut tackles the issue indirectly through this essay. As I write, I cannot believe it took me so many reads to reach this now obvious conclusion. To calm the world, Vonnegut used an effective essay that took advantage of our species-wide fear of death and channeled it into perseverance that will ensure our collective prosperity for thousands of years to come.

Analyzing A Fate Worse Than Death As A Whole

A Fate Worse Than Death by Kurt Vonnegut is a short philosophical piece considering the idea that there is nothing worse to a human being than simply dying. As a reader of biographies and nonfiction articles, I am not completely familiar with the philosophical genre; however, by reading A Fate Worse Than Death, I have come to enjoy the explicative nature of pieces covering the thought processes of human nature. I am typically drawn to biographies and nonfiction writing because of the ability the self-improving qualities I find within them; philosophical writing provides a similar benefit, and consequently, I enjoy it as well.

Upon my first reading, I initially labeled A Fate Worse Than Death as an ominous and dreary essay; speaking about death can make such as assumption easy to make. I focused on the sentences regarding human suffering and by doing so, I neglected the deeper points I would only recognize in later reads. Rather than an essay about the futility and meaningless of life, Vonnegut is writing about a more optimistic outlook that the human race should realize. He helps the reader attain such a realization only through understanding the absolute innate fear humans hold for death. Through several reads, I am able to conclude that Vonnegut is pushing the idea that through globalization and widespread communication, individuals can more easily see the humanity in those they may deem inferior. Having such an understanding allows us, as a species, to avoid the repetition of actions that push us to sufferings that may indeed be worse than death.

My readings of A Fate Worse Than Death have led me to the final conclusion that the story, though initially dreary, is Vonnegut’s way of conveying a sense of optimism regarding society as a whole; this sense of unity is attained by our collective fear of death: the ultimate fate of humans. As a result, humans endure even the worst of scenarios simply to avoid dying. However, by the grace of worldwide communication, primarily through television, humans are growing more sensitive to creating these awful situations; in other words, we are able to prevent such atrocities from ever occurring. This idea is evident from Vonnegut’s comments on the Vietnam War; the Vietnam War was the first widely objected war by both citizens and soldiers as both parties were able to see the humanity in their opposition through television. Though it is masked until closely analyzed, this article is an explanation of how death brings humanity together through suffering, endurance, and unity.

Considering how much further this idea has grown, especially with the internet, one can see how correct Vonnegut was in his assertion that we are consistently growing further from creating situations in which death seems to be the optimal escape. In fact, despite what media may exude, humanity is in one of the safest periods of all history. Nevertheless, examining A Fate Worse Than Death has revealed the masked information that one may attain from conducting several readings of the same piece. As a reader, I now better understand the value contained within philosophical pieces and will attempt to further explore the genre; philosophical writing seems to expand the mind greater than any other form of writing I have previously encountered. Vonnegut’s essay completely changed my outlook on death. Conducting this analysis has proved worthwhile and effective; not only has it exposed me to a new genre of writing, but it has also broadened my beliefs regarding society, optimism, and life as a whole.

as a wh

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