Monday, 30 November 2009

Playing Devils's Advocate: N M Browne


In an earlier blog post there was the suggestion was that one of the aims of education might be to encourage children to love reading. Now I believe passionately that every child should be taught how to read, but that is about it. This is a dangerous thing to say here, but I’m not sure that people who love reading are actually that much use.
Now I am talking specifically about reading fiction here and not the great jewels of English literature either, because great writing and great thinking is always needed. A small number of precious books have changed the world and every child should have the chance to read them. However, if you walk into any of the (remaining) grand emporia of the written word the greater proportion of material on the shelves isn’t particularly great and I suppose it must be what most of us are reading ( if we are reading at all) or they would be in even worse trouble than they already are. This stuff is the OK stuff with which I have filled too many of my waking hours. The kindest thing that could be said about my writing taste is that it is eclectic.
I was a mal coordinated child, egotistical and narcissistic as all children are and not good at making friends. From the first time I managed to read for myself a whole sentence of story ( written by the much maligned Enid Blyton ) I was hooked as surely as if fiction were crack cocaine and story has been my addiction ever since. I read my way through my infant school, closeted in the book cupboard, I read my way through a whole year of maths in junior school and never did learn long division. I read through most of my adolescence, living only in a kind of lucid dream My children’s infancy were the years of sleep deprivation and door stop fantasy read against the background drone of Ringo Starr narrating ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’. The sound of the theme tune even today induces instant catatonia and dreams of elves. How many conversations have I not had because I was lost in a book? How many times have I been absent when I ought to have been present? In fiction I could be anyone, do anything and what I could do in fiction I didn’t have to do in life. And there’s the rub. Why bother to change the world when you can read about other people doing it (and succeeding,) why bother to change yourself when in fiction you can be anyone you want to be?
My children quite like reading and that’s fine by me, I actively don’t want them to love it. I don’t want it to be for them what it has been for me, my addiction, my obsession, my crutch and my refuge. I want them to love living not reading about it.


Elen Caldecott said...

Good post.
I laugh now about my childhood obsession with reading, but it really wasn't healthy. I was trying to escape the bad stuff around me and books were where I hid.
But there are times when we all want to hide and I think children should know that there is a 'safe' escape possible, at least temporarily. The bad stuff is still there when you close the book, but at least you've had a rest from it for a while.

steeleweed said...

I was reading well by age 4. By the time I was 11, I had exhausted the local library. By 13, I had been through the High School library and by the time I graduated from High School I had made serious inroads in the local college's library. When I got out of the Air Force, I moved to NYC
just to find something to read.

As a child, I was unpopular, bullied and shunned simply because I was smarter than most of my classmates. I admit to never acquiring a high mastery of social skills, but it wasn't because I read a lot. I was asocial, but reading was probably the only thing that kept me from turning aggressively anti-social.

You present a choice between reading and doing, but I suspect the students who went on a shooting rampage a few years ago were not readers. If they had escaped from their unhappiness into the fantasy world of reading, the killings might not have happened.

I suppose reading was the lesser of two evils, but in a less than perfect world, I'll live with that.

Lee said...

Dear me, what a leap - reading/ shooting rampages!

I know a good number of intelligent, thoughtful, reasonably sane people who never read fiction. There's no 'must' about it at all.

Nick Green said...

Interesting, Nicky; I think I half-formed this thought myself the other day. I was thinking about illegal drugs (in the abstract sense only) and the amount of time I spent wrapped up in my own imagination, where I like to be, and found myself wondering, is my 'addiction' really that different? Isn't reading/daydreaming perhaps dismissable as just another chemical high, only one that is self-induced by mental activity?

I think, on balance, books are a valid and essential part of a life properly lived... but you make a good point. If we give ourselves over to them entirely, we're junkies of a sort.

Katherine Langrish said...

I so don't agree. I've been an avid, compulsive reader ever since I was about five. I ALWAYS have a book with me - in the car, in the bath, wherever. But I've also held down a number of different jobs, given value for money, brought up two children, ridden horses, made friends, gone on long country walks, helped in soup kitchens, protested against injustice (doubtless not enough)- none of it earth-shattering, I know, but I feel a reasonably useful citizen and I not only don't think reading got in my way, I think it has helped me to widen my horizons and see the world from other people's points of view.
Um - but clearly not yours, Nicky! Could you write a book about it? ;-)

John Dougherty said...

Nicky, thank you for such a thought-provoking post. I entirely agree that the love of reading - like any love - can develop to the point where it's unhealthy; but in such cases I suspect that if it wasn't reading it would be something else. And I do think you're setting up a bit of a false dichotomy by setting "living life" up against "reading about it" - there's no reason it needs to be either/or, is there? As for those people who will never learn to love life - for there will always be some - learning to love reading about it must be better than nothing...

Nicky said...

Of course I'm setting up a false dichotomy the clue is in the title! But I genuinely get irritated by the cultural elevation of 'loving reading' as if mAterial found between covers is automatically superior toTV,film, gaming etc. I don't think it is - you can read a lot of crap - trust me I have. I want young people to take the best of everything on offer including doing stuff in real life.

John Dougherty said...

Yes, I did spot the clue in the title - but your last paragraph seemed rather heartfelt. That's the problem with writers, I suppose...!

"I want young people to take the best of everything on offer including doing stuff in real life."

I hope no-one here would disagree with that. I certainly wouldn't.

Charlie Butler said...

At the risk of breaking copyright, Philip Larkin had a similar point of view, it seems...

"A Study of Reading Habits"

When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.

Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my coat and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.

Don't read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

AnneR said...

Charlie, I wish I'd known that poem last week, I could have used it with the TRO people!

Better to love reading than crack... Surely, Nicola, a lot of the time it is what we read that spurs us to action in the real world? Our ability to empathise with others, encouraged through reading, and our wider understanding of the human condition (ditto) feeds into the desire to make things better. And isn't that one reason we write? Because it will make a difference to readers? Whether in showing they are not alone or expanding their horizons, or whatever?

I like 'However, if you walk into any of the (remaining) grand emporia of the written word the greater proportion of material on the shelves isn’t particularly great...' Doesn't that, perhaps, explain their state? Maybe people actually want more than bestsellers and celebrity crap and THAT is why the bookshops are failing - they're a crack dealer that only sells weed ;-)

Nick Green said...

At a slight tangent to this, but still relevant, I once read a fascinating re-print of an interview with Robert Fripp, guitarist of King Crimson (bear with me). It was fascinating because it dated back from before Live Aid and Band Aid, but made reference to a chat Fripp had had with Bob Geldof, then lead singer of the Boomtown Rats. Fripp had said he believed music could change the world; Geldof poured scorn on this idea, saying it distracted only. Bob said (can't do the accent) 'If you've got some bloke in a slum in Ireland, with no job, and you play him a song to make him hope, you'll only disillusion him.' Words to that effect. Fripp replied, 'Ah, but he goes from having no hope, to having hope. And he might play that song to his neighbour, and he might hope too. So you go from a state of no hope to a whole street hoping - and that's a very different state of affairs.'
As I said, this conversation took place before Band Aid and all that came after. Could it have been one of the most pivotal conversations ever?
Music and books... I think they are similar in this respect.

Leslie Wilson said...

I was going to talk about me or my daughter Jo - loves reading and works for the Fairtrade organisation - but that's too egotistical and like a writer/reader. So let me say that I know loads of Quakers who are compulsive readers and also are busily doing socially worthwhile activities. One example: Peter Rado, now, alas deceased, a man who suffered and overcame tremendous health problems for most of his life. He also taught, sang in a choir, was part of a bail circle for refugees, a Quaker elder at the time of his death, and more other useful things than I can remember. Also he and Jo adopted four children who'd come from difficult backgrounds and gave them happy childhoods. Their sitting room was lined with books, all very well read, and a huge proportion of them were fiction.
Reading fiction also helps making the hell of commuting bearable, as anyone who travels on the train/tube/bus in rush hours can testify.

JennyMac said...

I was an avid reader from a very young age and my Father taught me to read before I ever went to school. My family are all avid readers but while I love it still and have overloaded my Kindle, I still live. And I always have. Luckily, reading was a great pre-cursor for my career (current career) and now that i have all these big thoughts about being a writer, I would love to read more. For some, books are a form of escape and for others, I think they are critical building blocks to communication, expression, vocab, and philosophy. I hope our son loves to read but you are right, the balance is key. I hope he loves living first, and then reading about how other people approach life.

Great and thought provoking post.

steeleweed said...

"I know a good number of intelligent, thoughtful, reasonably sane people who never read fiction."

I know people like that, too. Many haven't read a book since they got out of college. Outside their professional skills, they are ignorant. Intelligent, but ignorant.