Faculty Writing: On Noah Bombach’s White Noise, and the Stakes of Reading Instruction

In this edition of faculty writing, Christine Smallwood takes the measure of new film and podcast productions for The Yale Review and The New York Review of Books. 

For The Yale Review, Smallwood reviews Noah Bombach’s recent film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s classic satire White Noise—or, his transformation of it into “a story that only [Bombach] could direct”: “The sense of alienation and malaise that permeates DeLillo’s novel…recedes” in Bombach’s hands into “the lived chaos of family life.” And, while celebrating Bombach’s impressive repertoire of visual references (among them Godard’s Tout Va Bien), Smallwood notes: “Where Godard can exuberantly celebrate the manic red of the Coca-Cola logo while raging against the war in Vietnam, Baumbach’s Pepsi cans and boxes of Froot Loops can be only sinister or affectionately nostalgic.” 

Then, for The New York Review of Books, Smallwood tunes in to a new multipart podcast, Sold a Story, about child literacy and the so-called “reading wars”—a tenaciously fought, politically entangled, and enormously consequential struggle over reading instruction methods in American schools. One the one side: “cueing”—whereby context clues are meant to prompt a new reader to guess at the words on the page; or, reading as a more or less deductive process. On the other: the tried-and-true “science of reading” widely known as phonics. The “bizarre and pernicious ideology at the heart of cueing,” writes Smallwood, is that guessing by context turns reading into “an exercise in seeking confirmation of what they already know—these children who are at the beginning of knowing anything at all.”

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