A Literary Game of Telephone

Anyone who’s taught English to non-native speakers knows the game of telephone.  You whisper a sentence to one student  and that student whispers it to the next who whispers it to the next, and so on.  The last student in line says the sentence out loud (or writes it on the board) and everyone laughs at how “Jack waited for the bus in the pouring rain” turned into “Jack ate at four on the most boring plane” or some other nonsense.

As I was playing a variation of this game in class this morning, my mind drifted (bad teacher!) to the book I’m currently reading, Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips. It’s a sweeping story of twentieth century China and the tragedies which befall a particular family in the Northeast’s Gaomi County.  The first chapter describes, alternately, the birth of a mule, the birth of twins, and the Japanese invasion of a small village.  Reading through these 46 pages, an incredibly vivid portrait was painted in my head.  I could see the dirty, dingy room where Shangguan Lu was writhing in agony on a dirty kang, laboring to deliver two dying babies. The small, arched bridge which the town crier had covered in alcohol-soaked hay and set afire to ward off the Japanese was as clear as a photograph.  Every image, every character was immediately recognizable.

While I live in a relatively modern city in 21st century China, it’s undeniable that my travels and experiences living in this country have informed my perception of Mo Yan’s words.  True, I haven’t lived through an invasion nor do I know what it’s like to live in such abject poverty that there isn’t even water or clean towels to assist with the delivery of a baby.  Yet, being immersed in this culture does provide me with a unique lens through which I can perceive this story.  This is not to say that my perceptions are any better or worse than someone who knows nothing about China, just different.

As all this ran through my head and I cruised on auto-pilot with my students, it really hit home how different every book truly is for every reader.  Readers all like to make the point about how reading is such an active process, that we all fall into and construct our own worlds every time we pick up a book.  That’s a given.  My mental construction of Mo Yan’s Gaomi County will be completely different from yours and both of ours might be near unrecognizable to the author, should he be able to root through our respective neurons.

In short, it’s a game of telephone.  The author’s ideal story is filtered through his intellect, further distorted by the rigid parameters of language until it is printed on the page.  The readers replicate this process in reverse:  they read the words, interpret the language into intellectual nuggets of knowledge they can process, and then use those nuggets to construct their own unique world.  The odds that the final product will be identical to the author’s original vision are infinitesimal – non-existent, really.

What struck me the most, however, is the idea that it’s an impossibility to ever really see someone else’s vision, the author included.  Sure, we all follow the same plot, visit the same places, meet the same people.  Yet, our impressions will not – cannot – be identical.  The world I construct in my head as I am reading is influenced by every single thing I’ve ever done or experienced and that can’t be replicated, nor truly understood and comprehended, by anyone else.

I’ll admit, I was struck by a pang of sadness at this thought.  I want to see the world that Mo Yan envisioned, I want to know if my perception of Gaomi County is at all similar.  I want to know what a person who has never lived in China sees when they read this book.  At the same, this is one of the supreme joys of reading.  When I’m lost somewhere in a thick novel, I know that no one else in the history of humanity, not even the author, has ever traveled the same roads or met the same people.

At some point in class today, a student wrote on the blackboard “The red duck pulled off her dress in the temple.” If she (and the rest of her classmates) gotten it right – “There are a couple of oranges on the table.” – wouldn’t the game of telephone be an incredible bore?



  1. Heh, I’ve taught English while living in Japan and your post bought back so many memories of funny things students said as they misunderstood each other – that was a great year for my humour bone! I also find that with every reading of the same book I travel a different reading road, unlike any previous one, noticing things I didn’t notice before, getting different things out of it depending on what is going on in my life and my mind. Actually, I look forward to that with a re-read, wondering what I’ll find this time around.

  2. Great post topic. I never really thought about how large of a part the reading plays in a novel until it was pointed out in one of the Thursday Next books (I forget which in the series). But it’s true even if everyone reads the same book together at the same time, we will not all experience the same thing. And as you concluded with, it would be so boring if we all did have the exact same experience.

    I suppose if you wanted to share your experience, making a movie is the way to do it. People will still get different things out of it but you have more control when you determine the visual and aural aspects.

  3. this game was called Chinese whispers when i was a child & there was an old story that during the 1st world war a message passed from courier to courier changed from “send reinforcements we’re going to advance” to “send 3 & 4pence we’re going to a dance”, which being kids we all believed.

  4. @Mummazappa – Teaching is so much fun, when you get the students doing something interesting and then compound that with their tenuous grasp on the language, it can be uproarious. Good point about having a new experience each time you read the same book. There aren’t many books that I’ve read more than once, but I certainly know what you’re talking about.
    @Manoflabook – thanks for reading!
    @jvoss – Thanks!
    @Alley – Good point about making a movie. While it would lock the viewer into certain visual imagery, I still think that it would be an imperfect approximation. With so many people playing a role in the film (director, screenwriter, costume designer, actors, etc) there’s still so much room for interpretation and variance. Even if one person were to do everything him/herself, there’s still that gap that will always exist between conceptualization and realization.
    @parrishlantern – Chinese whispers, I’ve never heard that. I’ll have to tell that one to my students, they’ll get a kick out of it.

  5. This is a wonderful post topic & a fascinating subject. I’ve never thought about a book in quite this way but it did occur to me earlier today, as I was reading a blogger’s review of a book I recently finished reading, how very different our opinions of a book are based on our life experiences, interests, tastes and opinions. Many different issues and ideas influence our reading. Knowing the author’s own influences and reasons for writing a book and crafting certain characters may temper what we think or feel but it won’t really change it. We are our strongest influence when we read and it’s very hard to ignore who we are and what we think know and feel.

    Very thought-provoking! Thank you.
    ~ Amy

  6. @Amy – Thanks for the comments! It’s very interesting to read others’ opinions on books that I’ve read. Sometimes I feel as if I know where they are coming from, other times it’s much harder for me to understand where they’re coming from. I would argue that it’s not only very hard to ignore who we are when reading a book, it’s completely impossible. We are the sum of our experiences, so to speak, and this cannot but inform our opinions and views on what we read.

  7. great post. sometimes i am so frustrated by the thought that i’m not getting out of a book what the author put in – but like you say, that’s one of the things that makes reading (and writing, i guess) so interesting. recently i’ve spent a maybe excessive amount of time thinking about how i read, and i go into almost every book inclined to pick out things that interest me, so half the things i read are “about” time and memory and the way people create and recreate their pasts through memory. there’s something nice knowing that i have a totally different sense of a certain book than someone else, and in getting the chance to go back with someone else’s vision of the book in mind.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Ellen. I completely empathize with your frustration. At times, it seems almost profoundly sad that the writer’s vision is unknowable in so many ways to the reader. Being a glass-half-full kind of guy, however, the upside is that any book is a unique experience for each and every reader. And, as a commenter below noted, each time reading a book can be a unique experience to the same reader.

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