Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Reader

What must it be like to not read – to be unable to read?
by Charlie Leck

We watched the recently popular movie, The Reader, on TV a few nights ago. What a splendid and emotional film. The power and glory of reading was, of course, one of the underlying themes; however, the enormous stigma of not being able to read and the unwillingness to admit to it in our society, and what that can lead to, was another. What an extraordinary film! How simple it would have been to get caught up in the indignity of the Nazi regime and do its will without realizing how deeply into hell one was desending?

Should you watch this film, it will probably tear your heart out or, at least, put a giant lump in your throat and tears in your eyes. If not, you are unusual in regard to emotional control. Was it a great movie? I can only say it gripped me, held me and tortured me with questions I could not answer. I could not!

What an extraordinary gift to be able to read! No? And to read well is only a bonus in this life! I was challenged as a child to learn to read well. I would sometimes worry that I couldn’t read quickly and still retain a high degree of comprehension.

“Poof,” my mother would say. “Jehzee Schmallya! You needn’t read quickly. You should enjoy what you read. If you read a lovely paragraph, read it again because you want to. If you read a stunning chapter, go back and read it again because it deserves a second reading. Read for the love of it.”

My old lady believed that reading books opened more doors than any other skill. It didn’t matter to her if it was a novel, a spiritual homily, a biography or a collection of essays – even treatises about a scientific theory in biology, anthropology, psychology or physics. If it was written well, it deserved to be read. If it wasn’t written well, it should be quickly set aside.

One of my mother’s dear friends, Mae Call, was also my English teacher in high school. I wasn’t a very good student, but I believe my mother and Mae conspired together about my education. I believe they decided that, if I could be taught to read well, all other things would fall together for me. Mae would often keep me after class, or ask me to return at the end of the school day. She wanted to talk about what I was reading and what I was getting out of it. I thought it was disciplinary, but today I understand something else. She wanted to make sure I was equipped to do battle in the world – to do battle well in the world. It was part of their plan to make me a sharp and talented reader.

In college, where I struggled again as only an average student, I soared in those classes that demanded significant reading skills and I met a few professors (Doctor Cummings and Doctor Savage) who taught me even more about reading with comprehension and how to be on the alert for themes and thesis. And, again, in graduate school I met a master (Dr. Campbell) of comprehending the book – a master of taking it and its thesis and its presuppositions apart – without damaging the simple, elegant beauty of it.

Watching Hanna, in The Reader, reminded me of all these people in my lives and how much I owe them.

Do you want to empower a child for life? Do you really want to reduce the gaps in education between the poor and those blessed with plenty? Teach children to read – to read – to read – and to love reading with all their hearts. Do that, and you have given them the tool that will open any other subject they want to open. Then, you haven’t given them a fish; you have given them all they need to get along well in life.

I think again of Malcolm X and what I wrote about him here nearly two years ago. He was in prison when he learned about the power of reading. As he learned to read – to read with stunning comprehension – both his life and his world changed. He read hundreds and hundreds of books while he was confined behind bars. He made that period his college and graduate school years. He carried this skill throughout the rest of his life and was devoted, from then on, to setting up centers to teach underprivileged children to read, read, read. In prison he had found the key that unlocked the lock that held shut the heavy, thick door that led to life’s successes and all its wonders.

Should a boy or girl mature to the point where they could read well the following extraordinary paragraph by Toni Morris, from her book, The Song of Solomon, that child would be on his or her way to challenging life to its fullest.

“They talked on and on, using Milkman as the ignition that gunned their memories. The good times, the hard time, things that changed, things that stayed the same – and head and shoulders above all of it was the tall, magnificent Macon Dead, whose death, it seemed to him, was the beginning of their own dying even though they were young boys at the time. Macon Dead was the farmer they wanted to be, the clever irrigator, the peach-tree grower, the hog slaughterer, the wild-turkey roaster, the man who could plow forty in no time flat and sang like an angel while he did it. He had come out of nowhere, as ignorant as a hammer and broke as a convict, with nothing but free papers, a Bible, a pretty black-haired wife, and in one year he’d leased ten acres, the next ten more. Sixteen years later had had one of the best farms in Montour County. A farm that colored their lives like a paintbrush and spoke to them like a sermon. ‘You see?’ the farm said to them. ‘See? See what you can do? Never mind you can’t tell one letter from another, never mind you born a slave, never mind you lose your name, never mind your daddy dead, never mind nothing. Here, this here, is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back in it. Stop sniveling,’ it said. ‘Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in the rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on – can you hear me? Pass it on!”
Never mind that the next paragraph begins: “But they shot the top of his head off and ate his fine Georgia peaches.” Even this paragraph is part of the understanding, of the miracle – of the escape.

My, oh my, but what must life be like without being able to read such things. Hanna, in The Reader, shows us the inside of the prison in which one is locked up.

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