Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A common reader

One bright spot in being at home has been that I have read more.  Previously if I were lucky, I might get through one book a half-term.  If I began a book during term time, it would very likely lay abandoned on my night table and if I did have the time or energy to pick it up I would have to re-read parts of it because I had left it too long.  Now that I no longer have essays to read and lessons to plan I have managed to get through quite a few books. 

I see such progress as an achievement but not everyone would agree.  Some might argue that there are more productive uses for my time.

In the ipad and cable-free days of the 1970s and early 80s, reading for pleasure was seen as a normal pastime.  I would go to the Epiphany Library and devour all the Nancy Drew and Little House books (Oh, come on, I was young and James and Lily Potter had not yet conceived Harry).  Most of my classmates did the same, some might choose the Hardy Boys or Sweet Valley High, but most of us had a book ready for the moments when we had sit-at-your-desks-and-don't-talk-free time at school.

My parents are big readers as well and a common problem among members of my immediate family is how and where to store books.  As a child you accept what you are presented with as normal so I always assumed that other families were similar. 

Until high school, when I discovered that some people did not bother with the assigned summer reading nor did they read the books required for lessons.  Small pamphlets resembling bumblebees appeared in the student commons.  'Cliff Notes, much easier than reading the book.'  I went to friend's houses where there was only one bookcase.  And some shelves were empty or had VHS cassettes on them. 

Before my final year of university I went to the beach one morning with a friend of mine.  We picked a spot near the water and set up camp under an umbrella.  When I took my book out of my beach bag, he looked at it as if I had just extracted a candelabra or a lemur.  'What's that?'

'It's a book.'

'Who brings a book to the beach?'

I looked around.  People had indeed brought books, magazines and newspapers and some were actually reading them.  'Lots of people.'

It seemed odd to him because he wasn't someone who read for fun.  Teachers and professors made you read books but now that they weren't dangling the reward of good grades in front of you, what was the point? 

Another friend who wasn't a big reader did acknowledge that there were books that were worthy of being read.  He thought himself well-educated and felt left out of conversations with literary references that he couldn't pick up on and would loudly ask questions like 'Who's Holden Caulfield?  Did he go to Loyola?'  We would go to Barnes and Noble and he would purchase 'classics' that everyone should have read.  But then he decided that 'If the book is any good they make it into a movie and that only takes two hours to watch.'  Never mind that the book is almost always better than the film and that brilliant tomes like The Catcher in the Rye, Gravity's Rainbow, Cat's Cradle and The Secret History have never reached the big screen.  If they do, all will probably feature Leonardo Di Caprio.  Chilling.

A year ago, a national newspaper ran an article about the school where I taught.  The article was accompanied by a photo of bluecoated children sitting in the school library reading books.  One of the comments on the newspaper's website remarked that the photo was surely staged - who sits around reading books?!  A former pupil replied to the post explaining that for one English lesson a week, pupils went to the school library and could read a book of their own choosing for that period.

I can see why reading has fallen out of favour.  Films, television and the internet have become so much more varied and, like the Dark Side, easier, more seductive. It is tempting to embrace passive entertainment at the end of a tiring day.  I have succumbed to Simpsons and Modern Family marathons on Sky1 while my book sits patiently on my night table. 

But I always pick it up again (unless it's Kingsley Amis - I just can't get into him...).  Why bother reading books if there is no tangible reward for doing so? 

Because books, fiction and non, provide knowledge.  It is incredibly unlikely that I will ever search Taliban-infested Afghanistan looking for my orphaned nephew, lose a girlfriend and find God in post-war London or struggle with the repressive social and religious structures of Joyce's Ireland.  But such stories have an irresistible pull and I have gained some insight into what it might be like to live in a world that is not my own.

A. C. Grayling wrote,  'To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.'  The fictional elements of novels, plays and poems offer a glimpse into a reality that is not our own. Reading can provide the realisation that what is does not necessarily need to be, that another world is possible.  Think about why repressive religions and governments burn books - because knowledge is enlightening and sometimes threatening. 

The struggle with or the embrace of a work of literature shapes our hopes and fears, dreams and ambitions.  Any activity that provides me with such an experience cannot be a waste of time.

Ah, but if Liam Neeson played Leopold Bloom in the film version...

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