Monday, January 3, 2011

Clandestine Reading

I once read an interview with Willa Cather where she deplored the idea that any of her novels should be taught in schools. If young people read her, she said, it ought to be in bed by flashlight when they were supposed to be sleeping. I thought of these words this morning when I came across the following passage in a book about the nature of reading by Daniel Pennac (Better Than Life, published by Coach House Press in 1994). Pennac is writing about a current-days boy who would rather do anything than read and who certainly never reads for entertainment –

How can we ever understand his aversion to reading if we come from a generation, an era, a background, a family where the norm was to prevent us from reading?
"Stop reading, will you, you'll ruin your eyes!"
"Go out and play instead, it's a nice day."
"Turn off the light, it's late!"
The day was always too nice for reading, and the night too dark.
To read or not to read, the verb was always used in the imperative. Things haven't changed. Back then, reading was a subversive act. The discovery of the novel went hand-in-hand with the excitement of disobedience. Doubly splendid! How sweet the memory of those stolen hours of reading underneath the covers with a flashlight, while Anna Karenina galloped breathlessly through the night towards her Vronsky! Those two loved each other, and that was good, but what was even better, they loved each other in defiance of the ban on reading! Their love defied Mother and Father, their love defied the math homework that had to be finished, the English essay that had to be turned in, the room that had to be cleaned up, their love was better than dessert, they preferred each other to a ball game or berry-picking. They had chosen each other and preferred each other to everything else ... What love could be better?
Only, the novel was too short.