The reading police are coming for ’em young minds because they know what’s best.
Raja Bose, almost thirteen now, has another showdown with his mother. That’s because he is not as docile, as good a boy as his younger brother Sanjeev.
Raja insists on spending the long summer afternoons reading his story books. His recent favourite is the Famous Five series, stories of two boys and two girls and one big dog and how they solve mysteries during their holidays from boarding school.
Sanjeev, the younger one, is more clever. He covers his comic books as soon as his mom comes near the study table. The book he usually uses is a big, fat one that proves a very useful camouflage because the words in the title always pleases his mother: Mathematics Made Fun Grade 5.
They do have fun. The boys have exams to take, textbooks to study and carpentry projects to finish every week—mostly those stipulated by the school. Sometimes the carpentry projects are so complicated that the maid has to be sent to the local carpenter’s to do the intricate parts for a few hundred rupees. The carpenter is a good-natured young man, just a few years older than the boys themselves.
“What will book-learned folks like you be doing with a hard, wooden stool? You boys will never sit on it,” he grins as the boys pass his store on the way to their after-school chemistry lessons.
Raja was not allowed to go to his cousin’s wedding on Thursday because Fridays were his weekly tests on which he had not been performing too well. Mostly out of panic, he knew that privately. All he could remember during the maths test was the sketch of the face of long wigged Newton at the beginning of the chapter and something about the Western age of Enlightenment that Raja knew nothing about because few people thought it was relevant to solving the problems.
But his mother thought he had not studied his chapter on basic Trigonometry and hence no wedding party for him. It did not help that his parents stayed at home as well adding to his sense of guilt.
Raja also regularly performed badly in English for which there were disappointed stares but not as much retribution. Meaning he had failed to answer two of the reference to context questions in his English exam that had asked him who said “the above” words to whom and in what context. Unfortunately, there were no words above the printed question since it was the beginning of a new page and Raja had been too lazy to turn back to the previous page in the kind of apathy that takes over a thirteen-year-old on a Friday after a week of school and three evenings of tuitions.
Sanjeev, in order to avoid his big brother’s fate, had been trying hard to memorize his English lit answers at the end of his chapters in Radiant Readers. But what this resulted in doing to him was that he could see the sequence of questions very well, like a picture in his mind’s eye when he went to bed at night like a ghastly movie screen. Yet, the whole chapters themselves seemed to have disappeared from the space it was supposed to occupy in the textbook. This always kept him awake at night as he mentally groped around in the spaces where the chapters were supposed to be in his sleep.
His neighbours, the Sens, were having another problem. Their daughter Rhea, now thirteen, was found reading a romance novel after school. There was such a hullaballoo in the house that day that the Bose brothers almost got away with being detected with some Hardy Boys books in their backpacks because the maid was on the staircase listening, too busy to look while she absently took out their lunch boxes from their school bags.
Many a tragedy happens to people at a young age. But the least of these are not those inflicted by the reading police on young minds that could have been nurtured. The tragedy I’m talking about is the formation of a closed mind where an open one might just as well have blossomed because of the over-zealous presence of well-intentioned adults.
Some parents can never stop controlling the reading habits of kids. Some provide edifying books in the hope that it will uplift their children somehow by simply being pushed down their throats like a bitter pill. A biography, a moral tale or an educational book, sometimes delivered in the guise of fun, is somehow supposed to have an effect on their characters.
These parents closely monitor reading materials of almost grown-up children, following them to libraries, talking to their teachers and personally escorting them to book fairs. Amongst these the most dangerous ones are those that claim they haven’t had the opportunity to spend time reading themselves in their own childhood.Therefore they want their children to have better lives.
Sadly, parents who did not have much of an opportunity to get a great education, either because they weren’t smart enough or fortunate enough, develop a skewed sense of what hard work means. Education means everything that they could not do and nothing that they did do as young adults. Hence, no attending social gatherings, restricted fun activities, and little reading habits beyond the textbook for the kids.
Even in school, it isn’t necessarily different. The teachers take the batons of the reading police from the parents. There are angel books and monster books that bite.
Reading material is perhaps more strictly policed in all-girls’ schools than others. When we were in school, a girl was found in math class reading a romance novel. It was during math practice period when the real math teacher was absent and a substitute teacher came merely to maintain discipline. We were asked to read “Chapter 5” for fifty minutes silently while the teacher did her grading at her table. So of course different people took out different things that did not remotely resemble said “Chapter 5” taking care simply to speak in whispers.
Some giggles gave the girl away. She was found out and the novel was confiscated.
The teacher herself was a very young woman, perhaps during her probationary period at our school. The story goes that a different girl passing through the corridor by this teacher’s room the next afternoon saw a unique event take place. The strict school principal was seen to enter this young substitute teacher’s room, catch her in the act of reading the same romance and confiscate the book, perhaps for ever. That news spread like wildfire amongst the senior classes.
It is said that parents and teachers who had flunked tests themselves, or had read forbidden books and magazines themselves, always knew the signs and hence knew how to catch reader dissidents.
In their adult lives, not having read beyond their textbooks themselves, these adults develop a simple black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral view of the world including contents of books. Therefore they think they know for sure what books are good and what books are bad, what books to make the young people read and what books to keep away. Such a reading dictatorship casts a tyrannical shroud over the lives of their children who have to perpetually live up to the largely fictional lives these parents perceived themselves to have led in school by reading school books.
Both sides of the issues regarding the kinds of books kids are allowed to read become exaggerated in this conversation. On the one side, the idea is that if you study the textbooks really, really hard, you certainly will do well in the tests. The utilitarian dimension of book knowledge grow out of proportion and other activities in the world are no longer seen as useful unless cultivated consciously, like going to a coaching class. On the other side, certain reading habits in this view of things need to be prevented. If you read bad or disruptive books, you immediately go astray. The evil power of books seem exaggerated to someone who has never read them much themselves.
If you are a boy, random reading is at best a waste of time. It prevents you from staying on track, makes you lazy or god forbid, makes you truant. If you are a girl, it exposes you to dangerous stuff, has the potential to make you immoral or rebellious or just think too much. It can even make you very aware of your own mental space which might not be conducive to being a nice girl, always sensitive to the needs of others in a supportive role.
Random reading, at best, can be an embellishment, not an essential part of one’s education in this view of reading.
Yet, if one agreed with these parents, that the purpose of reading is moral edification, the relationship of reading to the mind is far more complicated than such fixed reading choices imply. The “good” in a good book and the “good” in a good person is hardly the same. As Oscar Wilde said, “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.”
Books hardly create character directly. What they do is show a few characters, present some ideas, expose young people to a few worlds real or imaginary. The more the books young people read, the more the kinds of worlds come into being and layers and shades are added to their perception of reality. And so, hopefully, kids learn to pick the good from the bad on their own, without being cocksure about the right and the wrong, the good and the evil. Those certainties and dichotomies are challenged and kids learn to think.
But if the parents police reading, there is an irreparable loss in the formative years and then another black and white, cocksure person is formed who is now out to control other minds.
Fortunately, I was allowed to run wild amongst books with little or no supervision when I was young. My best memories are those of long summer afternoons, curling up in the cool bedroom with a book that I had picked myself. Or poking unrestricted amongst the books on my father’s bookshelf chancing upon pages only half-understood. If nothing else, they have added to my storehouse of pleasant memories.
And my hope is that the present generation of kids have a better time too than Raja or Sanjeev or Rhea, roaming amidst the vast resources of the internet, with access to ideas and stories from many different perspectives, with less supervision from the adults.
For an empty mind is not a useful mind but a fixed mind is worse–it can become resistant to change, lack empathy and become the breeding ground of dogmatic ideas.
©bottledworder, 2013. https://bottledworder.wordpress.com
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