Musing quietly about “literacy”

“I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good. I would let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He’ll get better books afterwards.”

James Boswell, quoting Samuel Johnson in Life of Samuel Johnson

I love that quotation; by all means replace the word “English” with whichever language you prefer, the sense is what matters to me. [Incidentally, my thanks to Joan Downs of New York, who referred to the quote in a letter to the Editor of the New York Times a few days ago, thereby making it serendipitously accessible to me for this blog post]

It was January 1972. I was in Class 8D at St Xavier’s Collegiate School, Calcutta, the school year was just beginning. We had a new form teacher, Mr Desmond Redden. (Calcuttans will understand why he was nicknamed “LalMurgi” from the day we met him). Mr Redden was unusual, to the extent he had just joined the teaching staff at the school; whereas the 40-strong class he faced were, on, average, 5-year veterans of the school, and quite used to being with each other. If the school practised streaming, it was not visible to us as students; every year, we would notice that a few students went to another class, and a few joined us. The bulk of us stayed together from infancy through to the time we selected subjects for what was then our “Senior Cambridge”, our University of Cambridge Overseas Examinations Syndicate Ordinary Levels, to give them their full name.

Anyway, to the point of this post. Mr Redden met us for the first time, and it was likely to have been more daunting for him than for us. And to break the ice for the first class of the first day, he asked a number of us what we did during the Christmas break. When it came to my turn, I told him I played games with the family, lazed a lot. And read comics. Lots of comics. Every day.

He went ballistic, and was more than just scathing about my reading habits. Made a big deal about how reading comics was a treasonable offence, how it spoilt a person’s grasp and command of the language and corrupted his writing ability. I was young enough to feel ashamed; red-faced, tears in my eyes, hot-flushed, that sort of thing. Still standing up, hoping the ground would open up and eat me alive. You know that feeling? Happened to me a lot when I was young, probably built character or something like that.

A few minutes later Mr Redden was done with the icebreaker Part 1, and went on to Part 2. Analysing his portfolio, looking at what he “knew” about the children in his care. Looks like we have a fine soccer team, can do better on the cricket, and so on. And then he said something like “I’m particularly delighted to know that we have at least one serious creative writer in the class, someone who won the school short story medal while still in Class 7, unheard of. Well done. Who is it?”

It was my turn to stand up, and yes, I was gracious in my victory. To be fair to Mr Redden, that was a one-off; he was a good teacher and kept us together and motivated for a fine school year. But his antics on day one help me illustrate the point that Johnson was making.

My parents were very liberal in their approach to children reading at home; every week, we had a man come to the house, a travelling one-man library service for books and magazines. And comics. Lots of comics. In fact our name for the guy was Comic Wallah.

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This travelling Comic Wallah was a wonderful invention for us. His name was Mullick, I think his children still run the shop on Free School Street. He was still alive and at the shop when I last went there in the late 1990s. He’d come home every week, with books (ranging from Agatha Christie through Erle Stanley Gardner and Max Brand to even Mills and Boon) and magazines (from Time and Newsweek and Life and The Saturday Evening Post through to Woman and Home and Women’s Weekly and even “glamour” mags. And comics (mainly American, but covering all the genres).

You have to imagine all this coming into a house that had a lot of books already, and quite a few magazines on subscription. And newspapers galore. [In fact, ever since I was 12, we used to have TWO copies of the Statesman delivered home, along with the Amrita Bazar Patrika and the Hindustan Standard; why TWO copies of the Statesman? So that my dad would have a pristine copy of the Times crossword awaiting him, while the other copy was first-come-first-served competed for by me, my brother Anant, cousin Jayashree and aunt Vijju).

So we were brought up to read anything first, just to establish our love of reading. We were left to our own devices to figure out what was good and what was bad, with little hints thrown our way. What kind of hints? Collaborative filters. I watched what my dad read, and followed suit. What my older cousins read. What their friends read. So I moved from Perry Mason to Pynchon, from Max Brand to Mailer, from Christie to Chaucer. My way. I read what my elders read.

And what they recommended. We didn’t have reviews. We didn’t get sold to via advertisements. We didn’t have television. While we did have commercial radio, there were no related ads there either.
Over time, we learnt what we should read and what we shouldn’t.

But.

More important than anything else, we learnt to love reading. We’d read aloud to each other; it was normal for me to walk into a room and hear someone quietly guffawing, if guffaws could be quiet. it was normal for us to “fight” to be next in line to read a book; sometimes this involved bartering favours, sometimes it could even get mildly physical.

That love of reading has stayed with me. With my siblings. With my cousins. And, from what I can see, it has found its way into the next generation. Not by force but by example.

We just loved reading. I remember when I saw a children’s film called Short Circuit sometime in the 1980s, where a robot called “Number 5” turned out to be alive. Now this robot went around everywhere muttering “give me input, give me input”. That’s how it was at home. And we so enjoyed it.

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Today, things have changed. Apparently people don’t read as much as they used to. But maybe they do, if we count all the ways people can read today. So let your children read online if that’s what attracts them, let them read comics online, news online, whatever. Just as long as they learn to enjoy reading.

While they learn to enjoy reading, teach them how to read. What not to read. How to spot poor writing. How to spot pornography. How to spot perversion. How to spot brainwashing. How to avoid all of them.

It used to be said “It is better to teach a man to fish rather than to give him fish”.

I think there is a parallel in reading, particularly in reading online. Teach your children how to filter, don’t just impose filters on them.

And all the time, help them learn to enjoy reading.

8 thoughts on “Musing quietly about “literacy””

  1. But at least you could had the choice to not read JP. A couple of months ago I attended the launch debate of the Channel 4 literacy programmes (more details here http://www.channel4.com/culture/microsites/L/lost_for_words/). It emerged that 100,000 children a year are leaving school functionally illiterate.

    I think the education side of the equation weighs heavy on this one – indeed it was shown that when failing kids were taught to read, they responded voraciously.

    Unfortunately – if you thought IT was full of jargon, you haven’t been to an educationalists debate! It was mind-blowing. Reminded me of student politics writ large – so much concern about the proper way to do things at the expense of actually getting anything done.

  2. Ironically, I began my life-long love of reading with comics. They were, however, super-hero comics… DC and Marvel. I read and collected them for 22 years, selling them all to buy an engagement ring for my fiancee. I went cold turkey, but still appreciated the genre

    I graduated to more sophisticated literature, like MAD Magazine and Scientific American. This led to science fiction, then “true” literature like Tolkien.

    I’ve read voraciously and omnivorously throughout the years. I find that I don’t read as many books as I used to, but I spend lots of time reading on the Web.

    Does this count? I think this is a fair question. While it’s true as one goes from books -> magazines -> newspapers the content becomes more ephemeral and less deep. But which direction does “reading on the Web” take us? Certainly it can be toward the trivial, but it is also more targeted as we are able to better able to aggregate information specific to our interests.

  3. FWIW, Bill, I think hyperlinks just make reading even more fun, multimedia and multithreading add other dimensions. I still love real physical books and comics, but I spend a good deal of time “reading” on the web. And I encourage my children to do the same.

    If I had my druthers, I would make an OLPC standard issue for all schoolchildren, worldwide. As standard as pencils and erasers and protractors and compasses.

    And I would try and convince everyone that wireless everywhere was a must. Like breathing, only cheaper.

  4. Great post.

    When I was a child, I read everything in print. Steamed open packets in which dal or poha came, back of cereal and detergent boxes, newspapers (learnt the word ‘assassination’ at the age of 7!) and books. All books that I could legitimately reach – with the help of a chair, stool, table, sideboard – I could read. I read complicated things and when I asked for their meaning, I was explained patiently and was also regularly dispatched to the dictionary. When I was around 6 or 7 , my father started explaining ghazals to us, which means even today I cannot hear a word or phrase without recalling an appropriate sher or song :-)

    I learnt these lessons from my father: Teach a child to read; lead by example. Teach a child to filter and sometimes shocks are necessary in the process.

  5. I read voraciously and normally indiscriminately. I have lways thought reading makes you a better person since it opens you to other point of views.

    I think I can never repay my mom for inculcating this deep abiding love of books within me & I hope I can do the same for my children some day.

    From one book lover to another, thank you for this wonderful article.

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