Thursday, 19 March 2009

Cuba's Black Spring, Six Years On (2nd Part)

For the first part of this post, click here.

My third and final charge against the theocracies, atheist or religious, and their failure to read properly is this: that the act of true reading is in its very essence democratic.

Consider the nature of what happens when we read a book - and I mean, of course, a work of literature, not an instruction manual or a textbook - in private, unsupervised, un-spied-on, alone. It isn't like a lecture: it's like a conversation. There's a back-and-forthness about it. The book proposes, the reader questions, the book responds, the reader considers. We bring our own preconceptions and expectations, our own intellectual qualities, and our limitations, too, our own previous experiences of reading, our own temperament, our own hopes and fears, our own personality to the encounter.

And we are active about the process. We are in charge of the time, for example. We can choose when to read; we don't have to wait for a timetabled opportunity to open the covers; we can read in the middle of the night, or over breakfast, or during a long summer's evening. And we're in charge of the place where the reading happens; we're not anchored to a piece of unwieldy technology, or required to be present in a particular building along with several hundred other people. We can read in bed, or at the bus stop, or (as I used to do when I was younger and more agile) up a tree.

Nor do we have to read it in a way determined by someone else. We can skim, or we can read it slowly; we can read every word, or we can skip long passages; we can read it in the order in which it presents itself, or we can read it in any order we please; we can look at the last page first, or decide to wait for it; we can put the book down and reflect, or we can go to the library and check what it claims to be fact against another authority; we can assent, or we can disagree.

So our relationship with books is a profoundly, intensely, essentially democratic one. It places demands on the reader, because that is the nature of a democracy: citizens have to play their part. If we don't bring our own best qualities to the encounter, we will bring little away. Furthermore, it isn't static: there is no final, unquestionable, unchanging authority. It's dynamic. It changes and develops as our understanding grows, as our experience of reading - and of life itself -increases. Books we once thought great come to seem shallow and meretricious; books we once thought boring reveal their subtle treasures of wit, their unsuspected shafts of wisdom.

And we become better readers: we learn different ways to read. We learn to distinguish degrees of irony or implication; we pick up references and allusions we might have missed before; we learn to judge the most fruitful way to read this text (as myth, perhaps) or that (as factual record); we become familiar with the strengths and duplicities of metaphor, we know a joke when we see one, we can tell poetry from political history, we can suspend our certainties and learn to tolerate the vertigo of difference.

Of course, democracies don't guarantee that real reading will happen. They just make it possible. Whether it happens or not depends on schools, among other things. And schools are vulnerable to all kinds of pressure, not least that exerted by governments eager to impose "targets", and cut costs, and teach only those things that can be tested. One of the most extraordinary scenes I've ever watched, and one which brings everything I've said in this piece into sharp focus, occurs in the famous videotape of George W Bush receiving the news of the second strike on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. As the enemies of democracy hurl their aviation-fuel-laden thunderbolt at the second tower, their minds intoxicated by a fundamentalist reading of a religious text, the leader of the free world sits in a classroom reading a story with children. If only he'd been reading Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, or Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad, or a genuine fairy tale! That would have been a scene to cheer. It would have illustrated values truly worth fighting to preserve. It would have embodied all the difference between democratic reading and totalitarian reading, between reading that nourishes the heart and the imagination and reading that starves them.

But no. Thanks among other things to his own government's educational policy, the book Bush was reading was one of the most stupefyingly banal and witless things I've ever had the misfortune to see. My Pet Goat (you can find the text easily enough on the internet, and I can't bring myself to quote it) is a drearily functional piece of rubbish designed only to teach phonics. You couldn't read it for pleasure, or for consolation, or for joy, or for wisdom, or for wonder, or for any other human feeling; it is empty, vapid, sterile.

But that was what the president of the United States, and his advisers, thought was worth offering to children. Young people brought up to think that that sort of thing is a real book, and that that sort of activity is what reading is like, will be in no position to see that, for example, it might be worth questioning the US National Park Service's decision to sell in their bookstores a work called Grand Canyon: A Different View, which claims that the canyon was created, like everything else, in six days. But then it may be that the US is already part way to being a theocracy in the sense I mean, one in which the meaning of reading, and of reality itself, is being redefined. In a recent profile of Bush in the New York Times, Ron Suskind recalls: "In the summer of 2002, a senior adviser to Bush told me that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community', which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality'. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works any more,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'"

The democracy of reading exists in the to-and-fro between reader and text, when each is free to engage honestly with the other. The democracy of politics needs the same freedom and honesty in the public realm: freedom from lies and distortions about other candidates, honesty about one's own actions and programmes and sources of information. It's difficult. It's strenuous. The sort of effort it takes was never very common, but it seems to be rarer now than it was. It is quite easy for democracies to forget how to read.

· Philip Pullman 2004
· Extract from Index on Censorship vol 33 Does God Love Democracy? Index On Censorship

30 comments:

  1. I like you essay. Books become friends I have always thought and the conversation you have with them can vary as you age and grow.

    We have local body elections this weekend and I really don't know which way to turn. The candidates political platforms all seem pie in the sky...electioneering promises rather than the real nitty gritty.

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  2. I like YOUR essay It should say. I do like you but ...

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  3. No me cansaré de repetir que el remedio de los males que nos aquejan como sociedad, es la educación.
    Ejemplo: La mamá que lleva al médico a su bebé de 3 meses de edad y le pregunta: doctor ¿cuando tengo que empezar a educar a mi hijo? le responde el doctor: ya lleva usted 3 meses de retraso señora.
    Un saludo y que tengas un buen fin de semana.
    PS: Estoy perfeccionando mi inglés gracias a tus posts.

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  4. Gracias, Maria. Muy buen consejo. Como tu, soy un fiel creyente en la educacion como medio principal de mejorar la sociedad.

    Thanks, delwyn, but I wish I could write like Mr Pullman. I chased this essay for a very long time. It used to hang on one of the walls of my office when I used to work in the arts and I forgot to take it with me when I packed up and left (made redundant, rather). So, I have The Guardian and especially Ginny Hooker to thank for helping me dig it out.

    Greetings from London.

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  5. Blogger was giving me fits yesterday so I was unable to comment on part one...the part about the school girls not being let out of the burning building...heart breaking.

    I like Pullman's writing style; his description of true reading.

    Thank you for bringing this topic to my attention. I hadn't heard of Black Spring.

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  6. Many thanks to you, diva, for popping by.

    Greetings from London.

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  7. Books, I can't live without them. In any format. However, nothing like smelling the pages of a new one. I almost never went to school. It would get in the way of my reading.

    Thank you for the link to INDEX. Didn't know of it.

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  8. Many thanks to you mickey for commenting on the thread.

    Greetings from London.

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  9. sadness, anger and frustration.
    it's a revolving door with these three feelings every time we learn a bit more about what goes on in cuba.

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  10. You're quite right my man. Thanks for your comments and your clever, witty and always thoughtful illustrations.

    Greetings from London.

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  11. Cuban,
    Me puedo hacer lectora perene de tu blog? Encuentro en tus reflexiones una sensibilidad muy afín. También, aunque nunca he ido a la isla, siento una cercanía a Cuba, tal vez precisamente por su posición tan ambivalente, que siempre he sentido en mi propio ser... como una exiliada en todas partes...
    Leí ambas entregas de este post, y te agradezco la elucidación sobre una situación de la cual poca gente está informada, y a la vez, gocé profundamente de la metáfora que estructuras: la literatura es democracia...

    La literatura (y diría el cine) pueden ser un arma en contra de la ignorancia y la insensibilidad, con mi hija, siempre vemos y leemos, hablamos e indagamos... es pequeña, pero creo que nunca es demasiado temprano para comenzar a fomentar la claridad de pensamiento, la curiosidad y la empatía... y eso se fomenta con el estudio de la literatura en particular y el arte en general... creo que es su función básica y por eso, da tanto miedo a los poderes totalitarios.

    Por otro lado, y creo que viene al caso con respecto a este post, me interesaría saber si has visto el reciente documental sobre Titón y si sí, qué te ha parecido. Tuve la oportunidad de interactuar con él en el festival de cine en Santa Barbara (donde fui asistente en la programación). Te mando un saludo

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  12. Cuban,

    Ogni paese é composto da persone squisite, e da meno squisite.
    Da persone inteligenti, e da persone imbecilli che rappresentano la propria terra nel mondo.
    L'Italia é piena di queste diverse categorie di persone.

    Lasciati dire una cosa Cuban. E te lo dico con tutta sinceritá.
    Cuba dovrebbe essere fiera di essere rappresentata da una persona come te!

    I due post sono la prova della tua sensibilitá, e dei valori che hai dentro di te. Complimenti Cuban.

    Un saluto da Colonia con simpatia,
    Salva

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  13. los libros son libres por si mismos, conservan su libertad aunque los quemen, arresten a sus autores o los obiguen a disentir de sus escritos.
    Los libros son libres, porque en todo caso nos toca a los lectores encontrar en ellos la libertad.
    Allá, en Cuba, me di mil veces el lujo de ser libre, leyendo un libro prohibido... aquí 'sin embargo' te confiezo que leo menos... muy poco, debe ser que la libertad real, cobra sus cuotas en tiempo libre.

    Un abrazon, tony.

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  14. I am curious, Cuban, if you are in the mood. Where were you -or- how old were you -or- who do you know from 1959-61 Cuba?

    I think we have differing viewpoints on the destiny of Cuba regarding the Bay of Pigs.

    I have known old Marines who were aboard ships ready and willing to hit the beach in 1961 in support of the anti-Castro boys, but were sent home by Kennedy, and cursed him for it.

    No rush, and only if and when you are in the mood to think about it.

    What a life, hah?

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  15. Many thanks for your comments, muchas gracias a todos por sus comentarios.

    Fram, I was born in 1971. WIll answer your question fully very soon.

    Greetings from London.

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  16. I believe that reading is one of the essential doors to democracy, knowledge, spirituality and everything else we seek. If I look, there is a book, the written word answers me.
    Thank you so much...
    Lyn

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  17. Many thanks to you, lyn.

    Greetings from London.

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  18. What a thorough analysis Cuban, your elaborated speech amaze me;-)! There are still Black summers,autumms in Cuba... in succession. My wishful thinking makes me foresee a different Cuba on the short term, let the colours, let intellect come off...un abrazo

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  19. Hi, Betty, many thanks, but I will repeat it because some posters and readers have made the same mistake. The essay was written by Philip Pullman, not me. I wish I could write like Pullman, though. Many thanks for your kind comment.

    Greetings from London.

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  20. I see! A credit for Mr Pullman then, essay is actually a thorough one, moreover written but a foreigner...And also for you, for sharing it here...By the way, nice new blog frame, where did your old ball has finally fallen;-))? hughs

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  21. Books, constant companions, good and learned friends. What in the name of fortune would we do without books? There were many books – and films – banned in South Africa when I was young. Sometimes, banned titles would be snuck in by friends and these would circulate until they were falling apart and perhaps had pages missing, but no less precious, illuminating and exhilerating for all that.

    As you did when younger, I too have read books while perched up on the topmost branch – it was surely as close to heaven as it is possible to be! Best of all, and the most comfy, is reading while sitting in the spare tire on a Land Rover bonnet, perhaps near a waterhole while waiting for the animals to come down to drink, or up high on some remote plateau where the views stretch majestically to the arc of your earth.

    Philip Pullman is extraordinary - thank you so much for the link

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  22. Oh, betty you devilish woman :-)! The ball is still rolling about waiting to be caught, but I have no glove on, nor am I intending to put it on... ever.

    Tessa, I completely understand that feeling of catching up with reading in the unlikeliest of places or moments. Many thanks for your kind post.

    Greetings from London.

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  23. Cuban in London,
    this is a marvelous set of posts about a clearly misunderstood or at the least ,very under publicized topic! thank you for ushering me to pay attention to it. Naively I did not know the the Island contained more than the sorry and embarrassing prison held by the Bush cronies. My favorite paragraph is the 5th one with the line-"Books we once thought great come to seem shallow and meretricious; books we once thought boring reveal their subtle treasures of wit, their unsuspected shafts of wisdom." Something about it struck me as so true!! Have a great day.
    ps might I ask you if you have noted any difficulty following my blog or with the feeds coming in? Please let me know if you have . Salut du Midi,

    pss the word verification below is weirdly- "comies"!?? How does google create these verifications?

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  24. Hahaha! Funny word verification indeed! Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

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  25. As one communist to another (just kidding!!!), Greetings to you too, Cuban!
    Flamenco music is one of the most technically demanding so is the Flamenco dance… I sincerely admire the Spanish culture and especially talent and passion of Flamenco performers. I was fortunate enough to see the Los Farrucos live performance in NYC just a few weeks ago.
    Thank you for stopping by.

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  26. Comrade Natalie (just joking!), many thanks for popping by. I love flamenco culture.

    Greetings from London.

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  27. Muy buen post, Cuban.
    Leer es mi hobby favorito, después de los blogs, o no, no, leer es mi hobby por encima de todos los demás ;-)
    Un abrazo!

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  28. Gracias por tu comentario, agu.

    Saludos desde Londres.

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  29. i've been making mental notes for days to come read this and i'm glad i finally got around to it. gives me lots to think about. i like the way he thinks.

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  30. I like the way he thinks, too, fly. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

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