Explore this blog by clicking on the labels listed along the right-hand sidebar. There are lots of interesting stuff which you won't find on the home page
Seriously curious about me? Click on ' What sort of person am I?'

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Booklover lost among philistines

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. 


Dipanwita Shome said...

While I have read some of the books you have mentioned in your post, I still wish that I had had you for a teacher and mentor when I was younger. Sometime, not far from now, I will ask you for a modest list of books that I can read in order to deserve my wine and bread. Thank you for this post.

Bhavin Sangoi said...

Completely agree with you. People’s interest in books is decreasing day by day. Leave non academic reading even academic reading has reduced terribly. When I was a student in Mumbai University all our text books used to comprise two sections and each section carried five units. In final exam one question used to be asked from each unit. We had to attempt five questions out of ten questions and my fellow students used to read only five or maximum six units rather than reading complete book since their rational was that it is enough to read five units to pass the exams. Over the years things have gone worse. Nowadays even teachers don’t care to possess extra curriculum knowledge about their own subject. No wonder in such circumstances students lack interest in reading. It is painful for me to admit that my own students who come to me after completing their graduation in commerce can’t even explain simple law of demand properly, which I suppose they should have learned during F.Y.J.C. Lack of reading has hampered their ability to think, reason and argue vividly and constructively. It is unfortunate that students who have done their post graduation can’t write a simple essay. What can be worse than the fact that I have to teach them those simple things while they are preparing for elite U.P.S.C exams, which they should have learned during their school days. Chaos prevails everywhere in education. High fees and five star facilities are considered as alternative of quality education.

Shilpi said...

Why is this happening though? Why are even the bright children less well-read these days?

I’ve never been able to articulate clear reasons as to why reading is important or why books are valuable. I’ve got to say that I actually realised a fair while ago that reading fiction and non-fiction certainly wasn’t important for holding jobs or for doing well in school although the best students n my school-days were the girls who read a lot (there were dullards who did extremely well in exams and a couple even have very good jobs – so I can’t say much about that), and so when I read your chapter “On Books” in your book for your daughter, it made me feel relieved. Reading books is a little similar to what I feel about a sense of humour and appreciation of wit. I never can defend why these are important. I remember this one moment in a teaching class, from some years ago, when during a pertinent discussion, a dour student raised the question, “-but I don’t see why a sense of humour is important?” I looked back and could say nothing for some long seconds.

While growing up in that town, a lot of the books that I read post class VI, I’d say, came with your recommendations. That’s how I read Fulghum, Herriot, To kill a Mockingbird, Richard Bach (…although I stayed away from Gerald Durrell and Wodehouse for a long time), and, actually the list starts growing longer as I keep growing older, so maybe I should keep this bit very short. I was thinking about Leon Uris at some point when I was reading this post, and I think even the recommendation to read odd books like The inscrutable Americans came from you (as did the recommendation – and very direct one – to read A Moebius trip). The inscrutable Americans was the very first book that I read within the first week or so that I joined college and was living on my own in a room of my own. One author whom I enjoyed reading while in school was Jack Higgins ( a kind of an Alistair Maclean, whose The way to dusty death is the only one I remember in bits and pieces) – especially three of his books, Solo, Confessional, A prayer for the dying. The one thing I can say is that I read the original fairy tales when I was barely in double digits (that probably explains a lot of things?)…and not the pretty Disney creations but apart from that I know that while in school I fell in the not particularly well read category among those who used to read a whole lot….but what is changing so terribly?

A student of yours, I finally remembered, told me about that book club/library that you’d started at one point. I remember fading out in my head when he told me how and why you had to stop giving out books on a regular basis. That link was enchanting to read....I've almost absolutely given up on the dream of having a book-shop someday although it still stubbornly flits by every now and again. This town still has one local book-store which has a nice used-book section (which is rarely visited apart from maybe random weirdos), and it has two public libraries (apart from the university library, which still feels like a cathedral)….I sometimes wonder whether people who crib and complain about this town and wonder why the inconsequential town appears in the top five living options within the US on random lists realise that maybe it has to do with some of these “things”…..

I’ll have to say that I feel that the libraries and the marvelous resources are woefully under-utilized. This is what makes my own heart ache.

Thank you for writing this. I have a couple of questions that I’ll save for later.

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,

Thanks for this post. Although there are still many books that I ought to have read by this time, I have read some of the authors and classics that you have mentioned, so I guess I have evolved at least, a little from being a complete ape.
The authors that you have mentioned here will be the guideline on the next books I start reading.
Thanks and with regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I am heartbroken to see that there have been so few comments on this post, even if they meant only to criticize what I had said. So many of my readers are my current or ex-students, and many of them are parents already, or will be in just a few years' time. I not only despair for the future of my country, but feel more and more ashamed of belonging to her as I grow older. If India leads the world some day by some miracle, it will be only a world fit for swine to live in...

The Warlock said...

To the current multitude of students (potential readers), reading is perhaps a constant struggle with intangible benefits. One must first switch off his/her smart phone; Then turn off the television set; Then isolate ones wandering mind from the thoughts of visiting a mall to buy a paraphernalia of inessential items. Then one must shut oneself out from the social circle of "friends" both in the real and the virtual world. In totality one must first develop the capacity to isolate oneself from the ambiance inconducive to reading. One must simultaneously be aware that in the process one risks being labelled a "cynic" or a "skeptic" by acquaintances who know the meaning of neither, and yet be bold enough to risk the stigma.

I believe reading is like launching a space-craft. Once you have successfully broken through the earth's atmosphere, the rest of the ride is surprisingly smooth. Also, each unsuccessful launch teaches a lesson which may be more educative that the ride itself.

What is of concern is that the young ones today must have a proper "launch-pad". This is where parents come in the equation. What does one do with parents who are philistine in their approach. I do not have an answer to that. I can only state that if and when I become one I will not be one of them.

In Guess Who is Coming to Dinner, Sydney Poitier in his frustration to explain the unimportance of skin colour to his dad says, "You and your whole lousy generation believes that the way it was for you is the way it has got to be... and not until your whole generation has died will the deadweight of you be off our backs !". The same goes for all philistine parents who force their children down the same path that leads to the gutters (I do not care how harsh this sounds).

The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. And if that if that hand does not know to rock it will wreck the cradle and will wreck the world.

Thanks for the post Sir.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I was brought back to this post by a girl's remark last night that she has to read secretly because her mother yells at her if she finds out (exams are over, now, and the same mother finds absolutely nothing objectionable about the girl watching TV or chatting on the net or phone for hours on end, or asking to go shopping at the mall twice or thrice a week). 'boi porle porashuno noshto hoy', they all know as gospel truth. Who will tell them that neither the kids nor the parents have the faintest idea of what real porashuno means, that the best students of every generation for at least the last five hundred years have read vastly beyond their silly textbooks, that a person who has read nothing beyond textbooks, even if he's got a master's degree, is just a poor benighted fool...?

Debarshi Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards.Writers must languish in silence,and write in secret!One never knew,Sir,that our civilizations would see such a day when expressing even the tiniest fraction of a true human emotion would be so abhorred.A human emotion cannot be tailor-made to some mechanical/tangible specification;one denies one's essential humanity if one does not ever read books that speak about real lives!Where has the old charm gone away,when one could curl up in a cozy corner,snuggle down with one's favourite novel and be a traveller in an unknown land?Is our superficial ego so hard to drop,Sir?We cannot see the world through a fresh pair of eyes,cannot embrace our own selves!Sad indeed is the world for booklovers,Sir.No one wants to even weave the tapestry of dreams,with the strands of pure love and light,so that maybe we could leave behind a legacy of wit,wisdom and ultimately,Life,for our future generations,Sir..All we leave behind will be an unholy mess,a tangle of co-axial cables stifling all passions of the heart,amidst the concrete jungle we have so artfully built.

We truly are lost among philistines,Sir.I really cannot say any more.Sadness overtakes me.

With best wishes,

Abhishek Das said...

Dear Sir,
During my college days I was appalled to see how my mates wasted time on counterproductive habits like gaming and chatting on social networking sites. The diminishing number of bibliophiles is really sad, graver is the fact that some parents think that reading anything outside the syllabus is a waste of time. I remember a mother of a teenager once remarked how horrible a waste of time the habit of reading newspaper was. She said that her son wasted PRECIOUS time in solving crossword puzzles. Adding to the woes of the bibliophiles has been the emergence of the so called SMS language. It took a long time for me to figure out and get used to deciphering shortcuts such as Gr8 for great, n8 for night, bnglr for Bangalore and so on... A few years down the line I can see the English alphabet count reduced to 21 with vowels becoming a treasure of the past.
With warm regards,
Abhishek Das

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Let me note one thing definitively: it is my generation (those who are in the 45-55 age bracket today) which has spread philistinism like a plague in this country, and if I blame today's young for not reading and knowing and thinking, I remember to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of their parents, meaning we, who have driven it deep into their psyche that all kinds of education except that which gets you a job is BAD. The rot started with our parents, yes, but we have certainly driven the last nails into the coffin. We have sown the wind, now we shall reap the tempest...

Shilpi said...

That is the reason....now it makes sense why on an average the so-called bright students have read so little and think so little today. It never struck me why this was the case, and I've been mulling over this comment of yours silently. And that's what it is: the less one thinks, knows, and reads, the lesser of what matters is transmitted to the following generation - goes back to very basic introductory sociology regarding cultural transmission and socialization but I didn't even see it till now even though I'd been thinking about this...Thank you for this comment - at least now I see what it is. The last line of course sounds like drum roll.