It amazes me to find among my pupils some (albeit a tiny number) who still want to read. And it makes me sigh to know that the more our schools are ‘progressing in keeping with the times’, the less opportunity these children have of reading – not just fiction but all kinds of non-fiction works, including stuff that they need to reference for the ‘project work’ they are assigned from time to time, whether it is something about dinosaurs or the great depression or faraway stars or environmental movements or world wars. Most end up regurgitating copies of work done earlier by seniors, or material that their parents can beg, borrow or buy, or downloading stuff they have found on the net, or actually getting the project work done lock stock and barrel by professionals for a fee. And they grow up, even the bright ones among them, without having read a tiny fraction of what I’d consider absolutely necessary for someone who wants to function usefully and valuably in today’s world as an educated person.
An old boy who has recently gone over to a major university in Canada wrote back that one of his first strong impressions was that a lot of people read ‘big, fat books’ everywhere – in parks, on trains, at home. And others from some other countries aver that libraries are plentiful, well-stocked, and well-patronized. All I can do is sigh. I guess I was born in the wrong country. I would call any Indian city, including mine, civilized only when it accommodates haunts for bibliophiles like this (many thanks to Anindya Banerjee for sending me the link). I tried to buck the trend in a very small way for many years : as a schoolteacher, and even as a private person. Then I had to give up charge of the school library shortly before I resigned, and after suffering the agony of having too many books stolen and dismembered, and hearing too much parental abuse about how I was ‘misguiding and distracting’ their children I couldn’t take it any more, so I stopped lending out my own books routinely to my pupils, too. The generation of kids growing up in front of my eyes now, my daughter’s generation, has read virtually nothing beyond textbooks and comics ( a lot haven’t even read Tintin and Asterix!), so no matter what I ask them to talk or write about, be it parachutes or pumas, deserts or dreams, they evince an ignorance, or even worse, unconcern, that makes my heart ache. And I never cease wondering how such utterly ignorant folks can go on to get and hold down jobs that I once supposed required a great deal of knowledge!
So today, when I encourage young people to read, I have adopted a different tack. I don’t tell them merely that it would help them to become good doctors and engineers and business managers, because I now know that’s a lie: I rather tell them it will make them fuller, happier, more mature people, better able to cope with the challenges of life, having more real entertainment at their command than those who depend on parties and shopping and festivals, less likely to be swept off their feet by the siren song of advertizing, and proud of themselves for knowing a lot more about the world and about mankind than their peers do.
Imagine an eighteen year old who has grown up without having read (and remembered-) not only the world’s finest fairy tales but the Mahabharata and Shakespeare and Tagore and Russell, and not even Dickens and Conan Doyle and Wilde and Shaw and Wells and Kipling and Wodehouse and Hemingway and Asimov and Gerald Durrell and Herriot and Corbett and Jack London and Alistair Maclean and Nevil Shute and Chekhov and Pushkin and Tolstoy and Balzac and Hugo, nor even the great modern classics like Gone with the wind, All Quiet on the Western Front, Anne Frank’s Diary, To kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath, The Good Earth, How Green was my Valley, Exodus and The Agony and the Ecstasy… who has hardly even encountered any contemporary writer of greater substance than Chetan Bhagat! It takes my breath away, it makes me feel like a lone man on the Planet of the Apes.