Thursday, December 31, 2015

[Review] Symphony for the City of the Dead. by M.T. Anderson

As I read M.T. Anderson’s nonfiction text for teenagers, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shoshtakovitch and the Siege of Leningrad over Christmas break, I pulled out my iPhone to search “Shoshtakovitch 7th Symphony” on YouTube. Over one hundred renditions of the 7th Symphony appeared--including a short clip of Shostakovich playing a fragment of it himself.

Before reading Anderson’s book, I couldn’t have said much about Shostakovitch. Additionally, I knew little about the Siege of Leningrad and the city of Leningrad itself. My lack of background knowledge neither stopped me from being a reader nor stopped me from being a writer. My personal device--an iPhone--brought the sounds of the 7th Symphony along with images of war-torn Leningrad into my den. Yet, it is Anderson's gift at weaving a story that kept me riveted. I read the book cover-to-cover in less than 24 hours.

Technology patched the gaps in my background knowledge in that it quilted together raw information, pictures, archival footage, music, et al. at my fingertips. This immediate access to information helps all of us to become more effective creators--because the same device which allowed me to pull up supporting information also invited me to record my thoughts.

Technology allowed me to pause my reading and listen to the 7th Symphony, to search images of the Siege of Leningrad, and to share my thinking on this blog. 

And I thought...why couldn't students learn to use a device to help them leave tracks of their thinking as they read? Of course, they could. But back to the brilliant book...

For long stretches, I reclined into the comfort of my sofa and listened to Shoshtakovich's music as I absorbed Anderson's word with my inner ear.

Sometimes the music by Shoshtakovich made me go back and reread, such as this excerpt on page 344:

A soldier in the Red Army wrote in his journal, ‘On the night of 9 August 1942, my artillery squadron and the people of the great frontline city were listening to the Shostakovitch symphony with closed eyes. It seemed that the cloudless sky had suddenly become a storm bursting with music as the city listened to the symphony of heroes and forgot about the war, but not the meaning of the war.

Starving and weak, survivors endured daily bombings, cannibalism, and cruel taunts from the Nazis surrounding Leningrad--they air-dropped pamphlets reminding the Russians that they would all starve to death soon. And these physically frail, emotionally brittle, human beings found the will to perform this brand new symphony composed during the Nazi invasion.

And sometimes the music of Anderson's writing made me reread passages such as the one below:

It was not only the Russians who reacted. The Germans listened too, too, as the music rose up through leafy streets and above the gilt barrage balloons. It barked out of radios in the Wehrmacht barracks. Years later, a German soldier told Eliasberg, “It had a slow but powerful effect on us. The realization began to dawn that we would never take Leningrad.” That was enough in itself. “But something else started to happen. We began to see that there was something stronger than starvation, fear and death--the will to stay human (345).

Riveted, simultaneously hunched over my iPhone and a book, I watched and listened and read and thought. This impromptu coupling of Anderson and Shoshtakovich enchanced my reading experience. 

I resolved that I would share this segment of the symphony and the story behind it with my students next week because just minutes earlier I knew scant few facts about Shostakovich. I knew less about Leningrad. Yet Anderson and Shoshtakovich together left an impression on me that I will never forget.

1 comment:

  1. Brian, we often read and discuss the idea that technology is a tool, or set of tools, and not an end in itself. This post offers a powerful example of using technology to enhance the experience of reading, thinking, and writing. It also reinforced, to me, the variety of ways in which a reader can choose to actively engage with a text at any point within the text, and then share those choices and responses with others. How different from the stock essay questions or right/wrong responses... Most of all, this type of experience has the power to change one's view of teaching and learning.