My dear reader. This time out, that particular sobriquet, one that I have thoughtfully applied to you, the thoughtful, perspicacious and dare I say discerning human-shaped human who has deigned to spend a few of your precious temporal increments perusing my literary litter – will seem rather apropos.
September 6th is “Read a Book Day,” and September 8th is “International Literacy Day,” two occasions that you can imagine hold special places in the heart of a humble scribbler like myself. It should also be noted that September 5th is “Be Late for Something Day,” which means it’s probably scheduled for the 4th, but there we are…
In honour of both Read a Book Day and International Literacy Day I’d like to opine briefly on the subject of reading, and to implore you, my fine and decidedly non-feathered friend, to take up the call to arms.
No… the call to words!
Nearly all of us has felt this particular pain: Sitting in a high school Literature class, plodding through the impenetrable depths of a Thomas Hardy novel, or trying to unravel the linguistic labyrinth of Shakespeare’s plays. And then there was the poetry. Cadenced chunks of communication too complex for Bletchley Park codebreakers to crack. Our brains reeled with iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme and other such pieces of trivia drilled into us as if our lives depended on it…
Is it any wonder many of us grew up to avoid books and poetry, especially the so-called “classics?”
I was… a little more eccentric than most. My love of books and reading came from long before high school. I had few friends as a young child, and spent most of my time alone with books and my imagination. I had heard again and again about “classic” literature such as Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Gray, A Tale of Two Cities, Don Quixote and Moby Dick, among others.
Due to my already obsessive need to peruse new literary works, both fiction and non-fiction, I started to explore these “classics,” mostly to discover WHY they were so classic.
Many were difficult to get through. Recondite terminology and phrasing, settings and plots I hadn’t even conceived of before, much less recognized, were gradually presented to me. Some of the deeper meanings and lessons were lost on my young mind, but a tiny sliver of understanding began to dawn… and that proved to me very important once I reached high school and the incarceration of Literary Heritage 1100 and 2100.
You see my carbon-based compadres, I’ve been arguing for what seems like eons (but has been, in reality, only centuries) that our education system – or as I lovingly call it, the “regurgitation system” – is far too rigid and mechanical to offer any real understanding, particularly in the arts. There is knowledge certainly. Facts and figures and the like, but the essence of the works, be they literary or graphical, are often lost. The reason people hate poetry so much is because as teenagers they were forced to tear poems apart to learn about their inner workings. Stories were stripped of their emotional content and reduced to outlines, character profiles and grammatical structures. The magic, the spirit and I would argue, the meaning of the work was lost. Literature was reduced to it’s bare skeleton.
No one (save perhaps an orthopaedic surgeon) has even fallen in love with someone’s skeleton. Such it is with literature and poetry.
There you have it: The reason many (I would say most) humans don’t care for classic literature or poetry, isn’t because it’s not understandable – that’s nonsense and I won’t insult their intelligences by buying into such drivel. It’s because the subject was so dreadfully presented to them during their sentences… umm… schooling.
Need another example? I’m a history buff. Then subject is endlessly fascinating to me. However, five minutes into a high school history class and I’m ready to jam a pencil in my ear to make the pain stop. That’s not teaching… that’s rote memorization. To paraphrase author, educator and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, “We put children in desks and make them do hours of menial clerical work and then wonder why they fidget? They aren’t suffering from ADHD… they’re suffering from childhood!”
So… where does that leave us dear reader? Do we continue on as we have, relying on a select few eccentrics to maintain the love of literature while simultaneously ensuring that the next generation will think of books and poetry only as methods of medieval torture?
Negatory true believers! I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Call it a challenge, call it what you will, but I am imploring you to revisit classic literature. Start with something recognizable if you like – Wuthering Heights or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Read them at leisure, free from the pressures of high school exams and heedless of what the author was trying to say. Take your own meaning from the words. If you’re really brave, dip into poetry. It can be found all over the internet, and offers an even easier entry than books. Just don’t assume it HAS to mean something. Like any piece of art, it means whatever you decide it means.
If you’re blessed to live in the beautiful country of Canadia-land, right now at the bookstore chain of Chapters / Indigo / Coles / Lamont / Vanzetti or whatever the hell it calls itself now, you can find hundreds of works of classic fiction and non fiction, from Moby Dick to Plato’s The Dialogues of Socrates, all for 3 for $10. It’s a great way to step into an entirely new world and open your mind.
In the end, reading more is not likely to solve all the problems of the world, but it may help open our minds to new ideas – and even some old ones whose time has finally come. At the very least, classic literature, just like modern tales, are based on their times.
There are lessons to be found there that we can apply to ours.