Literature, it’s an amazing technology: one person can transmit across time and space to another. You use these strings of signs – letters, words, sentences – on paper or screen or even by voice and they go directly into someone else’s inner world and start acting and reacting there. It is the most precise way we have of transmitting, sharing and thinking about the human experience.
That is why it is important that the study of literature is not the study of history or culture or philosophy, although all those disciplines have a part to play in understanding what it is to be human. Studying literature is trying to understand what writers say and testing their understandings against our own. It’s a thing in its own right. Here’s an example.
Some boys aged 8-11 are in a library, looking at books in a bored, desultory, careless way. These boys do not much see the point of literature. They do not like reading and do not feel it has much to do with them. They are mostly not very competent readers. They have lost confidence and don’t feel any personal need to master the skill. Why would you bother? Soon, many of these boys will stop seeming to care about school altogether.
Now an adult is reading to them, Not Now Bernard, by Dave McKee. It is an excellent work of fiction, and the form in which it arrives – strong visual images, hard hitting and witty language, powerful and convinced reading by the adult, helps the boys take it seriously long enough for something to happen. Bernard is in a foul mood and no one is taking any notice of him. In the garden a monster eats Bernard and he returns to the house, biting Bernard’s father on the leg, and suddenly all the boys are paying attention.
This is literature at work.
Every boy among them has wanted to bite some adult on the leg, has needed attention, has been ignored in kindly, normal ways as well as, in some cases, in sadder, less usual, ways. The boys, though they might be considered far too old for this book, which could be aimed at preschool or other very young children, have been drawn into attentiveness. The book has touched a spot: the boys are variously moved or interested or amused. Something in them is responding to something in the book, with mild shock, with laughter, they are pointing, re-reading, asking questions that are both emotional and intellectual – ‘Is Bernard really eaten?’ ‘Why doesn’t his Mum and Dad see him?’ ‘He is the Monster!’
This act of reading opens a meditative, contemplative space (I say that, though here in this primary school library, the room is also noisy and chaotic). Together the book and the reader are creating a mental, an emotional space, in which one may think, as it were, through a focussed lens, about real experience.
For each of these boys will have experienced something like the Bernard story – every child among us knows ‘not now’ – but only the lucky boys, with adults who stop to talk, who help them build positives out of what might otherwise be negative experiences, will have the language and the emotional literacy to master the ‘not now’ experience. This is in a small way what literature is for. It is to record our otherwise unintelligible experience and give it back to us in ways we can understand and make part of ourselves. It stands for other humans. It passes on important human messages. These messages are not always, not even usually, writ large. They are, in the best books, subtle, multi-layered, and complex. But the next time a boy calls for this teachers attention, if she calls back ‘not now, Bernard!’ everyone will understand a great deal more about the situation than they did before they had read the book.
The suffering, naughty, amused adult mind of this story is a model which these boys might not have if there were no transitional object of contemplation, no sharing: no book. If no one had read it to them.
In this sense literature is a practical, day-to-day, human technology. The book is, in this case of Not Now, Bernard, a sort of caring, witty adult. But of course, the very boys who do not get much attention from or time with an attentive, space-creating adult, are most likely the very same boys who do not have a copy of Not Now Bernard. These are the boys who do not go on weekly visits to a public library, the boys who have not mastered the technical skills of reading, the boys who are disengaging with education before they’ve left primary school.
That’s why it’s important that we concentrate on building reading for pleasure with children, and that we face up to the fact that that has to be done, in most cases, by one human sitting down with some others and sharing books. And that costs time.
Shall we do it now, or not now? Don’t make me bite you on the leg!
Donate to the Reader Organisation’s work with children here. £5.00 will help to buy a copy of Not Now Bernard, or another great book. £50 will help to train a volunteer to read it with the boys. £5000 will put a Reader in Residence in a school once a week.