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Post-literates who read 

Last week I read this quote from Russell Smith, “We are all finely attuned to the conversations in our own rooms.” On Thursday January 14 , he was writing in Toronto’s Globe and Mail on David Bowie and the people who were familiar with him and upon whom Bowie had had an impact, but he also addressed the fact that because we move in our own circles, we do not often hear other voices.

The same week, the Dean at Welland University in Ontario described us as a “post- literate” society, that although many of us do read to our babies and young children, few are readers themselves, not modelling that joy and interest of books beyond babyhood.Leah McLaren as well in her column decried the sanitized children’s books where original stories had been turned saccharine so as not to upset the fragile little ones and give them the illusion that everything will in deed turn out right in their world. What occurred to me was Bruno Bettleheim’s work on The Uses of Enchantment : that we do need the witches, the shivers, the scaries for multiple reasons.All these probing discussions on books cheered me and I enjoyed reading the diverse voices, albeit all coming from pretty much the same orbit. 

When I introduced my post-colonial class at Northern Secondary School, I did endeavour to elicit those “other “voices. I required the students to interview a grandparent or immigrant who had come from another country: so as to share experiences from another time and place. Because adolescents are so insular, they rarely go beyond their own head space except for videos or their headphones or their buds so they also tend to communicate within their own group. More than twenty years ago, books from Africa, India or even South America were akin to falling off the edge of the world and entering a dark hole. One parent shockingly referred to this study as “ primitive”, scolding me for this program that would not aid her daughter in university.But even then I was mindful that our world does not end at the boundaries of our local neighbourhoods. 

When teaching back then, I encountered wonderful narratives from students who actually dialogued with the old lady in the corner, the distant cousin from Scotland, the Auschwitz survivor, enquiring not only about their roots, but learning about new contexts. Separating the oldies from the wallpaper cast their progenitors in new lights as the true purpose of the exercise was to discover how similar we are to others, kin or not:how we all share in the human condition, our fears, our joys, our funny quirks that often pass from generation to generation.  

Of course, we also read the indigenous voices from Africa and India and South America. Speaking from your own tongue is so different from a Hollywood filmmaker or screenwriter who thinks they are transcribing the indigenous words of the original speaker. We did, I will admit, view Out of Africa and Cry Freedom from the sympathetic white (wo) man’s perspective. Yet I did recognize the need to listen and truly hear the language and message of the writers  themselves : Chinua Achebe, Marquez…And when books from those “ other” countries became sexy and desirable literature, I applauded that.

Interestingly, how popular even Downton Abbey has become now: a different time, set and divided classes, but spirited people in textured settings that promulgate information, apparently highly and accurately researched, extending our knowledge of the concerns, anxieties, lives lived many generations ago,but perhaps we have always envied the rich who float on a cloud of servants much like a fairytale.  And did not Moll Flanders and Becky Thatcher not tickle us as well?

And yes, it is our own circle who is watching the soon to end beautiful production that makes us voyeurs to an impossible lifestyle unless you were an aristocrat, born or married wealthy , now a tech genius, winner of the Powerball… We chortle with our friends who  set the clock for Sunday’s  production to observe the antics of the cast that engrossed us so we can mull it over with them on Monday. Still it charges our imaginations , and after Carson’s wedding to Mrs. Hughes, we all smiled sweetly in our sleep : that even the servants can have a beautiful wedding. Ahhh- in spite of Lady Mary’s insistence on celebrating her way, quiet, prim, determined Mrs. Hughes managed the wedding she wanted. 

Today video and television and Internet transports us , but a book remains for me primarily a treasure, a magic carpet.  

In terms of Leah McLaren’s point, I think of the stories I’ve shared with all of my grandchildren. Benny Bakes a Cake is a book I begin to tell them at 18 months. It is a very simple narrative.On Benny’s birthday ,he and his mother bake a cake to honour the day. However, Ralph the dog with his lolling roiling tongue, has been sitting at Benny’s feet during the entire process and when Momma removes her apron for a walk, Ralph dislodges the cake from the table. Poor Benny, for he cries and cries and cries and cannot stop.  

When I first present the story, the kids enjoy the simplicity, the few words, the clear drawings and they recognize “ birthday” and “ cake” and they join in the birthday song when Benny’s father arrives with a store bought cake to save the day. However, as they deepen their understanding , mature, get older, they begin to comprehend the catastrophe in the narrative. I will never forget the look of horror on my grandson Carter’s face when he realized that Ralph had destroyed the cake and there it lay in a disheveled mess on the floor. That moment of insight was explicit in Carter’s eyes, an epiphany that life can go wrong -even with one’s beloved dog on the most special of days. 

McLaren also examines the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day . It is in deed a very bad day , for little Alexander, one of three brothers, narrates his sad tale of his mother forgetting to put a desert in his lunch, his teachers’ criticism of his artwork,the dentist finding a cavity and Alexander having to purchase all white running shoes when his brothers dance about and taunt him in their lively striped ones. This is another book I have shared with the grandkids.  

When I read it to Aaron, Carter’s younger brother, he followed and was very perturbed. He got the individual fragments and the overall theme: of the very bad day. But he implored me to put the book away, his face, too, revealing a connection to a child’s life ( Aaron at 4 years of age) that can be unsettling and troubling. He did not however, understand that there will be days like this and good days will follow the bad. So we will read it again when he is older and make sense of the entire tale.These moments that pierce the child’s ego are important: that the story is NOT occurring in their own lives, but it is recognizable: buildings bridges to a familiar reality. As they snuggle in close to the person who can reassure them, they are learning that yes, bad things happen but good days will follow. We cannot erase the bad from life -which will occur no matter how much cotton padding we use to muffle it, but the lesson to be embraced is that we can find ways to cope and move on, discovering solutions, good sunny things that can cause us to break out into song; or decide not to abandon all hope and move to Australia. 

Loved ones reading to their kids, cuddling close or preparing them for sleepy time are likely reliving their own delight in sharing something significant as they,too ,recapture a moment of love transmitted from their own weary parents at day’s end. I think that is why books like Babar and Madeleine and her appendix operation( talk about terrifying)and silly Curious George have endured forever.They remain part of a song of golden babyhood where love prevailed and engendered precious relationships. Besides which, the child under quilts and coverlets, exhausted from a day of raucous play presents themselves as relaxed, affable and not ready to bound on to the next activity.And if fresh from the tub, s/he also smells that delightful child smell. Warmly fastened in bed and surrounded by a circle of stuffed toys, they appear the picture of Hallmark card of perfect childhood. 

I hope that we don’t settle into a truly post literate world, for a book offers so much- to adults as well as to developing children. Plus one hopes that the memories created by this special time will surface to spark the adult to rekindle their own desire to engage with new voices and be transported back or forward into new worlds of wonder. I think Tennyson said it best in Ulysses, 

       Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

  Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades 

 For ever and for ever when I move. (19–21)

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