Masochistic Perceptions, Trials and Truths

These are my cyberfied cerebral synapses ricocheting off reality as I perceive it: thoughts, opinions, passions, rants, art and poetry...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Bleeding Pen, Sharpening Sword

I am a Special Needs teacher at a junior high school. The majority of my students read at very low levels – all are the product of their demographic and socio-economic situations, compounded by a plethora of conditions ranging from ADHD, to dyslexia, to Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, etc. When you add other cultural influences such as television, there are times that I feel I am taking on a Sisyphusian task. I fear for these children. On the one hand, an individual needs to possess the ability to read to survive in our modern world in a practical sense. Greater still is how this inexpensive form of pleasure and mind expansion is being lost for these kids and our world. My own Mother could not read, and her life (ergo my childhood) suffered for it.

I love to read. In fact, I find my relationships with a book to be more intimate at times than it is with people I know. In a novel, one gets to know the protagonists on a level that we oftentimes can not achieve with our mortal counterparts. Books allow us to enter a character's thoughts, whereas in the real world we must go on assumptions of what others are thinking.

Books can transport us into the past, future or fantasy worlds, explore philosophical themes or simply make metaphorical and allegorical commentaries on our contemporary societies. For example, I've been reading several Middle Eastern writers as of late such as Orhan Pamuk, Khaled Hosseini and Yasmina Khadra which have provided me with an amazing insight into the Islamic world through several contrasting lenses. If more Westerners would venture into these writings, perhaps we could better understand the issues facing the world in terms of terrorism and so forth. I can not begin to stress the importance of trying to understand the points of view of others, and books (plus foreign films) provide us with the best opportunity aside from actually going to these places.

Ultimately, books are readily accessible, can be easily transported around, do not require a power source, are not limited to special effects budgets and become all the more intimate through the relationship the author builds with our imagination. In all honesty, when I finish a good novel, I feel like I am saying good bye to a dear friend. As Tom Stoppard would suggest in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", one need only open to the first page to bring the story and characters to life once more. With so many books out there, I seldom have this opportunity.

Reflecting back to the students with whom I work, and the overall level of literacy levels in many of the First World's great democracies, it frustrates me that how reading does not take precedence over all other governmental issues. Literacy levels in the United States are way below even some Third World nations, and my own country, though somewhat better off in this regard, still has a long way to go. The Arts in general are often painted as economic villains during times of elections and what not, and it frightens me to live in a society that focuses more on economy and possessions than it does in those things that add to the qualitative aspects of life or builds the intelligence and knowledge of its citizens. Imagine, if everyone was literate and well read, perhaps countries like the U.S.A. would not spend trillions on their military budgets as they would not be driven to war through fear and misunderstandings. In Canada we might look positively on the construction of a new Art Gallery, as we do with a new Hockey arena. This latter example is happening in my city right now in that public opinion supports the building of a new rink for the Edmonton Oilers (despite having a perfectly good one already but just not containing enough corporate boxes for the Oil executives), but has not stopped moaning about the expense involved in the modern world class Art Gallery being built (we were also supposed to build a National Portrait Gallery here, but the Federal Government withdrew the funding). Our North American cities have sacrificed architecture and any form of vision for box stores and drive-thrus. Who wants to exist in a strip mall urban wasteland, especially when contrasted to cities such as Paris, Vienna and Prague?

My car bares a bumper sticker that reads "KILL YOUR TELEVISION". Like President-Elect Obama said in one of his final campaign speeches (and I'm paraphrasing): "parents must parent – sit down and read with your kids as opposed to letting TV and other media raise them". I look at the children that I teach and know, despite their diagnosed conditions, that if they had parents who took the time to parent them, to read with them, if we had a government that funded schools like they provide breaks to corporations, then they would be much further ahead. As a community, we must promote the Arts and reach children at the earliest age possible. Reading, like the Opera and Symphony, should not be elitist things accessible only to the wealthy. By grooming young patrons, we are also adding to Arts funding and expanding the entire scene – our scene. Literacy is central to all of this. We need to become more human as people, as opposed to becoming numbers in a cubicle, all watching the same TV shows and listening to the same music. We need to be able to travel from city to city and feel like we are somewhere new. Our mindset needs to shift from this fanaticism about health, weight and flavour of the month. We need to be provoked and moved. We need to feel alive.

How can the pen remain mightier than the sword if the world's masses are unable to wield it and learn from the messages that it etches onto the page?



  • At 11:00 a.m. , Blogger Andrew Louis said...

    You’ve taken a nibble out of an enormous issue here, I’m not even sure I know how to comment on it in a useful way.

    I’ll tell you what though; I grew up in Minneapolis, which is a pretty cosmopolitan city to a certain degree. However about 6 years ago I moved to small town in southern Minnesota for my job. The cultural difference that exists is astonishing even though we’re only talking about an1 ½ hour drive. There’s people down here that still throw around the word *nigger* like it’s 100 years ago; and what can you say to that? You certainly can’t put them down for it, you just sort of move on, feeling a bit sorry for them on the way…..It’s pathetic.

    I think we’d all be amazed at what could happen if we put the right books in people’s hands. Ignorance arises not necessarily at the fault of the individual, but at the fault of a society that (as you say), don’t be readin’ in such. Boks r’ 4 chumps.

  • At 6:49 p.m. , Blogger Minister of the Masochistic Truth said...

    Sadly, those ugly opinions exist everywhere - just look at the neo-nazis arrested in Israel, and in Alberta's rural areas, folks are still pretty much old school cowboys. What really riffles my feathers is that rural areas get the same educational curriculums as the urban areas.

    Books are largely the answer - that's why folks burn them and ban them. Do governments truly want their citizens to be engaged critical thinkers?

  • At 11:28 p.m. , Blogger Aine said...

    Wonderful post! Just experiencing a new perspective or way of thinking by reading someone's story is so valuable. We would remain so focused and narrow-minded if we didn't read because we'd be stuck in our own way of processing the world, ignorant of the fact that there are other ways of thinking.

    I have reread several books throughout my life. Sometimes because I want to be transported to a wonderful world as an escape again and again, and sometimes to discover new meaning or lessons (especially when years have passed since my last reading.)

  • At 4:57 a.m. , Blogger Catvibe said...

    I really like what you are saying here, and I agree. My kids both read, and I did take that time when they were young to nurture arts, reading, music. However, the computer was the most dominant presence in the house. We never had cable, actually we did occasionally but I would have it disconnected so they wouldn't always be begging to watch it.

    Now they are adults and, like me, are computer addicts who don't read books that much. Not that they can't, but that they don't. It is sad to see what is happening with books. I wonder how much of it is due to the lack of ability to pay attention to any one thing long enough to get into a novel. The world wide web and computer games have provided a master attention deficit issue. How do we get back to long slow attention and focus?

    You're a great writer, all of your multidimensional experiences have made for a very thoughtful and provocative substance in your prose.

  • At 10:16 a.m. , Blogger Minister of the Masochistic Truth said...

    Cheers Aine! I think the only books that I have re-read have been Camus "L'etranger", and Orwell's "Animal Farm". I go into bookstores and begin to panic when I see all the books, not wanting to miss out! I honestly could not imagine a world without them, and the state of publishing in the digital age terrifies me.

    This gets to what you were saying, Catvibe, about the youth of today not having the attention span to read a novel. As to how to get back to the long, slow attention and focus mentality, the responsibility falls on us as individuals as we can only control our actions and serve as examples/inspiration for others. This means supporting our local Arts scene (theatre, readings, art exhibits, etc.), be scene reading in public, talk to others about book with the passion that we would talk about the love of our lives. If you have children, expose them to the Arts through courses, read with them, talk with them, put them in music lessons, do art with them and take them out to as many Artistic events/venues that you can. If you don't have children of your own, then borrow them. If you have a nephew/neiece or friend with children, offer to take them out and expose their minds to the world. If you have the time, offer to volunteer by going into a school to read to the students. In the immortal words of Gandhi, one of my heros, "be the change that you want to see in the world".


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