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February 1999, Volume 6 Nr. 6, Issue 66

Books

A student recently asked me, "Why should I read a book? That’s boring." A bit further into our conversation he revealed that there are "funner" things to do than spending time reading. I decided to do some investigating. I followed a hunch and discovered that teenagers may actually read more than the general population and may in fact read more than the teachers who teach them! Students have textbooks and literature which they have to read for the courses they take. The average adult in the United States reads one book per year and it is most likely to be a mass marketed book where subliterate corporate veeps chose what to read.

The emerging technologies of the late 20th century have been taking the emphasis off of book reading. There is even a movement afoot in California to demonize reading through a pedagogy which espouses the concept of the prejudice of the printed word. This is not to suggest that there is only one learning modality but rather to emphasize that the possibility of improvement in reading should not be sacrificed at the altar of easy and passive video viewing.

It is easier to sit or lay on the couch in order to watch than to read. The latter necessarily involves the creative thinking processes of imagination and wonder. It is thought provo-cation which leads to skills of decision making through reaching conclusions; reading relies upon a visualization of the world through interpretation and personal interjection revolving around mental images created through words words that require integration into the entire being. Reading allows the luxury of setting pace and having access to regress.

The former is, at best, the sucking in of someone else’s images while, at worst, it opens the uncontrollable floodgates of media manipulation through passive participation and acceptance of those pictures which we have been told over and over again are each worth over a thousand words.

While the choice of what we read is limitless, the video images we see are carefully constructed for maximum effectiveness by a few special interest corporations who give us a few hundred channels of targeted programming.

In the "age of digital delivery", the value of the printed word in information delivery cannot be underestimated. Research into the use and effects of images and text in various presentational forms indicates that simple text-based layouts are more conducive to information retention than vivid graphical presentations (Neuman 1991, 100).

My professional adult colleagues in education often comment that they do not read much either, having little time for books. There appears to be plenty of time, however, for sports events, soap operas and other visual stimulation. What do we tell our students when they ask us what we read? How can we as educators, parents and adults profess and educate when we read so little ourselves?

Books as Instructors

Once literacy is achieved every book becomes an instructor and the further education of the individual begins. A few days ago I happened to glance up on the window sill above the love seat in the living room only to find a copy of Geoffrey Cana-da’s book, "Fist Stick Knife Gun: A History of Violence in America." I read the book in two days. I could not put it down. Canada’s book written in plain and simple English describes life for children in the harsh inner city. I highly recommend it for everyone, particularly for those who have not grown up in such an environment. It will help them relate to a difficult world that is home to too many children in the United States.

I, like Canada, was brought up in the inner city. Canada speaks about the street codes pertaining to violence some codes which I experienced but did not understand. Reading this book brought me a better understanding of some of my leftover fears and apprehensions from daily walking the streets of Jersey City. It helped explain some of the feelings that I have to this very day about life in a big city. Canada became a teacher for the two days that I was immersed in his story.

A lifetime of reading is a lifetime of schooling. Human beings who recognize and accept this statement find it hard not to read. They are almost always in possession of two or more books being read at the same time. It is not as difficult a task as one might imagine. One tip I give my students is to take a book and tie a string around it somewhere through the middle of the pages so that the book is suspended in mid air by holding the end of the string. I then suggest that they tie the free end onto the toilet tissue holder in their bathroom. Each time they sit down they are then to pick up reading the book from where they last left off.

I have also asked students to keep a small log for a week where they can write down the times that they are doing nothing (though doing nothing is occasionally in itself a worthwhile activity). Some students ride the school bus up to an hour each way at the school where I teach. Often, they simply look out the window.

There are many hours during the day where reading can easily take place. I always carry a book with me that more often than not gets read during the times that I am waiting for a meeting to begin or for a person to arrive. My favorite place is the room where regularly scheduled full faculty meetings take place. I arrive twenty minutes early, find a preferred cushion seat, settle in and read. I also carry with me at least two different non-mainstream newspapers or magazines. I’m not likely to find them anyplace I go, as waiting rooms at hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices, etc., are filled with the standard Time-Warner corporate fare.

Reading and Liberty

Frank C. Laubach, founder of Laubach Literacy, the world’s oldest and largest literacy organization, equates literacy and reading with freedom and liberty. Laubach stated,

A literate person is not only an illiterate person who has learned to read and write, he is another person. He is different. To promote literacy is to change man's conscience by changing his relation to his environment. It is an undertaking on the same plane as the recognition and incarnation of fundamental human rights.

Why would anyone deliberately deny themselves the expression of and participation in such fundamental human rights. Once having them, how can we not express them through reading as often as possible? Perhaps, like many of our other freedoms we take reading and the ability to read anything we want for granted. If we do that for too long over extended periods of time we may wake up one morning to the realization that certain books have been banned. This is exactly what is happening.

A few examples of books that have been banned or censored in the United States include: Ulysses by James Joyce; Voltaire’s Candide; John Cleland’s Fanny Hill; Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. More alarmingly the following books have been banned for schools and minors: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice; Darwin’s Origin of the Species; the illustrated addition of Little Red Riding Hood; Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; George Elliot’s Silas Marner; John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding. Many more examples can be found on-line at "The On-Line Books Page presents Banned Books On-Line" (see bibliography).

Laubach is correct when he says that reading creates "another person." Reading is interactive. Reading allows one to compare their ideas with that of the authors and to disagree, even in a way that hones the reader’s discrimination skills. It allows for the clarification of ideas.

I suggest that reading creates a new person. Each time that we read a book and draw from that experience the adventure, information, lesson, understanding etc., that previously we did not have, we then become that new person. Imagine reading a social studies textbook as a young child about Betsy Ross and the famous story about the sewing of American flag. Children are profoundly affected by reading patriotic descriptions such as these. Imagine, further, as an adult reading that Betsy Ross had nothing to do with creation of the American flag, that the entire story was a hoax created by her relatives who were involved with the tourist trade in Philadelphia many years after the American Revolution. This shock and the further checking of sources, cross-referencing and reading the truth alters the "I" in profound ways.

How can those entrusted in teaching young minds substitute mythology for fact? It happens often. Do they not have the obligation to present the facts or at least point us in the direction where the facts may be read? Have they accepted mythology as truth because they do not read enough?

Another vivid example is the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan during World War II. Most Americans believe that these events were necessary in order to end the war in Japan. Then one reads about:

  • Dwight Eisenhower the then Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force who said, "the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing." (Pitelka)
  • Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to the President who said, "The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. . ." (Pitelka)
  • Major General Curtis E. LeMay, U.S. Army Air Forces LeMay, "The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.'" - September 20, 1945, press conference. (Pitelka)

And so, as we read we become changed forever.

Revelation

Reading about startling revelation fosters a rebirth in who we are. It is what should take place throughout the continuous possibility of personal growth and self-education. It is necessary for the education of the individual to continue for us to become new people over and over again. To stay the same is to stagnate.

Perhaps people read less precisely because they are afraid that they may become this other person, that is, the angry one or worse, the one driven to do something about what was just read. Are we afraid that that which we read will move and motivate us to do something more. Taking action alone or joining a group working with a community of individuals requires commitment. Commitment typically expands our involvement and involvement requires more commitment. Scary proposition. Not only might reading involve committing to personal action, it fosters personal action.

The less we read, the less we become that new person who may take action. Thus, we develop the tendency that if we do read anything, we read that which reinforces what we already know or does not threaten our cozy place within society and our little world. We read that which safe and comfortable. We may actually demonize that which we perceive is not. Why run the risk of disagreement or conflict either internal or with someone else? There may eventually develop the danger that any reading might lead to more reading and more reading may lead to new discovery requiring action. Safer not to read.

Relevancy

Adults are relevancy oriented. Those that do have a tendency to read usually read those topics that agree with their position or point of view. We learn the most however, when our reading involves new and controversial topics which challenge our long standing opinions and beliefs. It is this challenge which either reinforces our belief system or, as in the case of reading about Betsy Ross, destroys it. We should not shy away from reading the challenging for it is the challenge that reinforces the belief, that is, if the belief is credible to begin with. It is very much like faith which stands up regardless of challenge. A faith worth having has no external threats. It is secure and safe within itself.

Presently, I am reading Noam Chomsky’s book Profit Over People Neoliberalism and the Global Order which is a critique of our political and economic system. While I first heard the term neoliberalism more than a decade ago on short-wave radio, the term is not heard often in the mainstream media even today. It is as if this word, containing the middle string of characters, "liberal", is to be shunned and shied away from by those who profusely profess neoliberalism. Yet, the perpetrators of prejudice toward the word liberal have become their own victims to this latest name calling since they themselves are the neoliberals. It is the conservative US Capitalists who have trained the country to denigrate the L-world thereby having to distance themselves from the word itself. And who said that words are not powerful remakers and reshapers of the world we see or want to be seen?

Neoliberalism is the process by which the free enterprise system and its "democracy" are touted around the world as the only successful model for the world to emulate, while ignoring its enormous failures domestically and internation-ally. The "free market" philosophy is professed to be the only viable economic system on the planet yet those professing it are beneficiaries of anything but the free market. They receive incredible tax breaks and perks subsidized by the people struggling to make a decent living. "Free enterprise" institutions are excellent examples of non-democratic power structuring. Conservatives for the most part are neoliberals benefiting the most from government subsidies to corporations through moneys collected from the poorest in society and diverted upward to the top. Neoliberalism is a form of socialism for the rich a bad idea for the working and oppressed but a cherished ideal for the rich. Why should not all the people benefit from this highly touted philosophy? Read more to find out.

What might readers become if they read Noam Chomsky’s book (and his other works)? Perhaps, and hopefully, they would start to think! They might even discover that have been had and become the new person ready and willing to make changes no matter how small that benefit the poor working class the class that creates most of the wealth which the adherents of the new late 20th century Wall Street religion so precariously espouse.

Beyond Area 51

New people eventually realize that reading threatens the status quo and the order of the day. Those open to reading and becoming new people might consider shifting the books they do read from biographies on Elvis Presley, "the truth about area 51" or Monica’s Story, to more relevant matters such as those that affect the relationships between people and in turn the relationships between nations.

As I write these words there are 14 minutes left before the deadline is reached for the opposing sides in the dispute in Kosovo to reach a settlement. How many of us know enough about Kosovo? How many care to find out before we commit our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers to military action in that region?

How many care to read about Kosovo’s Albanian and Serbian history? What is the former and present Yugoslavia? Any trade routes of importance in this region? Why does the US take a position favoring the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)? Who is the KLA? What are its connections to Sali Barisha, who as former President, was responsible for a failed money- making pyramid scheme that caused the loss of many poor people’s life savings? Why does the West refer to Barisha as a "popular Capitalist reformer"?

I pose these questions as thought provoking. There are many sides to most issues. Read about the many sides. Do not fall into the trap of ignoring important world events under the pretense of not being smart enough. Do not accept the belief that an event or situation is too complicated to understand. Such thinking is not an adequate excuse for remaining ignorant. It is however, exactly what those who control the media want us to believe. That way, we can never become new people.

It is discouraging however. Perhaps, I am naive to think that the US populace would pick up a few books about this yet again troubled region (the two world wars had their origins to a large extent here) when they still perpetuate the lie about Betsy Ross and how Christopher Columbus was a good and benevolent explorer with the best of intentions toward the Arawaks.

Contemporary Issues

It is heartening to see social studies classes where students study contemporary issues. I wish that I had such a class when I was in high school. Perhaps, then I would have known about Vietnam before I went into college. Perhaps, many of my friends would have made different choices. Yet, I cannot help but wonder in this particular academic atmosphere of reading more that the reading is more of the same. Typically, one or two magazines both produced by the same corporate conglomerate passes as the "text" for these courses such as Time or Newsweek.

It is said that checks and balances are necessary for a democracy to function well. These checks and balances are a result of opposing and disparate points of view. This is unavailable when one journalistic viewpoint is presented or for that matter when one history textbook is used in a classroom. Imagine a classroom where conflicting textbooks and magazines are the norm! Such dynamics might espouse disagreement and controversy. It might even encourage students to read a few more books. Then again, perhaps, the whole point is for them not to. It seems simple enough, an intelligent informed electorate is indispensable for a democracy to survive. Read!

Quotes

We need to understand that what now suffices as a publishing industry, primarily the cost-effective paperback, is a twentieth century invention, not an invention of Gutenberg and his peers..."

  • Richard Cox

A good book is the best of friends, the same today and forever

  • Martin Farquhar Tupper

Education... has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.

  • G. M. Trevelyan

The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.

  • Oscar Wilde

Properly, we should read for power. Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one's hand.

  • Ezra Pound

If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are rotten, either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing." --Benjamin Franklin There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it.

  • Cicero

Bibliography

Culture and Communications Reading Room. On Neuman. "The Role and Status of the Printed Word in 1996."
[http://kali.murdoch.edu.au/~cntinuum/VID/vanessap/threeD.html
Accessed 27-Feb-99.

Laubach Literacy. "Frank C. Laubach Founder." 
[http://www.laubach.org/mission/index mis.htm
Accessed 20-Feb-99.

On-Line Books Page, The. "Banned Books On-Line."  
[http://www.cs.cmu.edu/People/ spok/banned-books.html
Accessed, 22-Feb-99.

Pitelka, Morgan. Japanese Culture. "The Bombing of Hiroshima, August 6, 1945: Controversy in America." 
[http:// japaneseculture.miningco.com/library/weekly/aa080997.htm
Accessed, 24-Feb-99.

1999 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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