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Crystal Salt
  • Writer's pictureCristina Deutsch

It's Time for Non-Readers: The Book-Ignoring Revolution

I don't even have the time to sip twice my morning coffee and I see a news story on Facebook, via, that says “Romanians read less than 5 minutes a day, and 35% of citizens have never read a book”. I try, without much success, to imagine both of them. 5 minutes. What can I do in 5 minutes? Turn on and off the TV? Put on my boots and tie my laces? Less time than smoking an entire cigarette. Less time than it would take to make a coffee... After which I try to group the 35%, to cram them somehow in the imagination. People who have never read a book. But what did they do? They ate, they drank, and they went to work. They came back from work. They turned on the TV and lay in front of it. Have they been bored? I guess so. I think they have been bored to death. This is like sitting in a house, a house that has windows, of course, and you would never have the curiosity to open a window and look out. You wouldn't be tempted to leave the house. I'm starting to envy those who still took a chance and laid eyes on a book, even for a few minutes. Maybe they didn't repeat the experience because they didn't like it... Personally, I don't think that only Romanians are in this situation (although, from what I see in the article I have mentioned before, we are, as I read, the lowest of the low). Here I also see the information that “in this context, PNL deputy Sebastian Burduja proposes that February 15th become the National Reading Day in Romania”.

It doesn't seem to be just another cultural spree, without an object – that day is to be dedicated, in schools, only to reading. Which is undoubtedly an interesting idea (to say the least). And as unimportant as it might seem at first glance, it might actually have an impact. I once had a wonderful drawing teacher, in elementary school, named Elena Mihail. I think this was around 1988. Besides letting us draw and scribble as we pleased (and not forcing us to paint the “background” first) and bringing us art albums (which had made us more polite and disciplined than anyone could have ever imagined, we were passing those albums from hand to hand as if they were made of glass – which is certainly difficult for some 12-year-olds.. .), at one point she proposed to us, that during the lesson, a student would read aloud from “The Legends of Olympus” by Alexandru Mitru. I had already read and reread them, I was a fan, but I remember how all my colleagues, in a very short time, had practically become addicted to the pages read in that drawing class. Even those who could hardly manage to read and write (very few, because we were lucky to have an absolutely wonderful teacher, Mrs. Elena Săcădat) were fascinated. During the break after class, we didn't have time to fight or argue, we discussed what had been read before and, above all, what could come next... I'm sure there were children who, driven by curiosity, made sense of Alex Mitru's two books. Some of them, surely, after finishing them, realized that there were other books. Obviously not all of them. Probably something like that would be needed. A person to open their eyes. Not one to push them from behind. I say this because I can also give the opposite example: I had a classmate (primary school this time) for whom books simply drove him to despair. A boy who studied well, very well I might say, and was undoubtedly intelligent. It's just that his grandparents, wanting to make him even smarter than he was, forced him to read ten pages a day. After which he had to tell what he had read. If he didn't tell the right story, he would have been punished. The delivered what he was due, he got sweets (usually a wonderful orange jam made by his grandmother). I think that's when I started to associate the taste and smell of orange jam with the smell of books. I would read what there was to read, I would tell him the story, and I would receive half of the reward. Everyone was happy. The boy, if it hadn't been for this trick, I think he would have preferred to be punished. Maybe even beaten. Just so he doesn't have to read. And that's not because his grandparents were bad or stupid people, not at all – they wanted the best for him and tried to help him. But the idea of being “mandatory” ended up ruining everything. In fact, if I think about it, I experienced a similar thing myself with Eminescu. As a child, when I still didn't know how to read by myself, my mother read to me (also) from Eminescu. I can't remember if it topped Kipling's Jungle Book in my preferences though (which was absolute #1, I'd do anything to get an extra serving of Kipling in the evening). Finally, I certainly liked him, he could read me the same poem several times and I was not bored. The adventure with Eminescu continued, in junior high, with ossified respect (but still combined with a certain curiosity to read poems that I didn't know) and reached, in high school, disgust, and horror. I got dizzy just hearing the name. I remember arguing with one of my mother's friends before college, who, in good faith, was also a “romantic soul” and was actually horrified when I told her that I didn't only that I don't like Eminescu, but that I simply hate him. “Oh”, she said, “and then how do you even think of going to Philology?!”. She calmed down when she saw that I had studied him, that was not the problem. She just didn't understand how I could say such blasphemy, that I don't like it. Now, after all these years, it's obvious to me that I didn't like it because it was forced down my throat, stuffed with dozens of more and more stupid “comments”. It was important to know those comments, no teacher asked you if you had read Eminescu. If you have any poetry left in your soul or head. And I regained Eminescu with great difficulty (but I regained him) – I suspect this happened after I managed to forget all the comments. I managed to read it again with pleasure, to enjoy his poetry. But it took some time and I had to work hard. This does not mean that Eminescu was boring, uninteresting, or (alas!) horrible – it just means that some completely wrong pedagogical methods interfered with and destroyed my enjoyment of reading. And this happened to me not only with Eminescu.

It's hard to start reading at an age when you no longer belong in school. You don't have time, you've never done this, and you don't see “what good it would do”. You don't have a book at home. You've never bought one. You need money to eat. To pay your bills.

It's hard to open a book when you're at school. It is mandatory. It's annoying. You are pushed from behind. You want to know something. Search on Google. You don't need books. Books are for fools. It doesn't “help” you in life.

You're little, you've barely learned to read. Nobody cares at home. At school, the book is synonymous with punishment. You have a phone. Maybe you even have a tablet. What more books do you need?

A few years ago, at the flea market, I witnessed a scene that simply left me speechless. I assume you know that there, among other things, they also sell old books, most of the time for 1-2 lei (that means around 20 cents more or less). A Roma child, I think he was about 10-11 years old, was rummaging among them and choosing what seemed appealing to him. His mother kept pulling him by the coat and telling him to let it go, what do you need these for? Those things cost money!". To which the child, with a face on the verge of despair and gathering the books he had already chosen in his arms, says, screaming: “I need them! And I pay them with my money!!! I have the money from the bottles I have sold!”. His mother became a little embarrassed and apologized to the other people who were also looking at what they could recover from the pile of books lying on the ground: “That's the way this boy is, I don’t know what to do with him... Why would he need all those old papers I don’t know...”? And she kept pulling the child to get out of there because she was feeling like a fool. I think the poor woman was traumatized by all the praise and compliments she received for the child, she didn't really think he was that special and she was surprised that people didn't consider he was a bit crazy... But no, if the others said it was ok, eventually she admitted that she doesn't even know to read... But the boy left with a bag full of books. And with his mother, with her face in flames, not clear whether it was from pride or shame...

You don't have to read. Start from the idea that no one in this world can force you to do it. But what if, somehow, you will wake up too late and realize that you could visit millions of universes and you preferred to stay at home without even opening a window? Maybe tomorrow, not necessarily today, you'll still open a book. It doesn't have to be on paper. You can also read on your phone or tablet. Even project the text onto a TV screen. You know, it could be downright dangerous... If God forbid, you start liking it?

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