As a child, if you’re lucky, your parents will buy you books, take you to the library and, most importantly, read to you. There is nothing more comforting, cherished and precious than curling up on a loved one’s knee and listening to them tell you a story. When you start school your love of story-telling is magnified as you not only get to hear wonderful, enchanting tales, but you learn to read yourself. Suddenly, those funny squiggles and marks start to make sense and you are no longer reliant on others. You can enjoy a book any time you like. You just open the pages, dive in, immerse yourself in another world and lose yourself completely. With reading comes writing, and another door is opened for you. You now not only understand the funny squiggles and marks but you can make them yourself. You can create your own worlds, your own heroes, and your own “happily ever after”.
When you hit adolescence, you wave farewell to children’s literature and move onto the serious stuff – adult, literary classics. These books are part of the syllabus for good reason. They’re damn good stories. They’re filled with amazing plots, fantastic characters and have well and truly stood the test of time. However, the enjoyment of reading this rich body of literature is replaced with the teaching of literature. The two may sound the same but they are not. “Read a chapter and discuss, read a chapter and discuss, describe, tell, explain, compare and contrast…” Yawn, yawn, snore, snore… It’s enough to switch the most avid bookworm off and it did.
I can honestly say that, throughout the two years I was studying for my ‘O’ level English literature exam, there was only one book that I enjoyed; one book that I lost myself completely in. This shouldn’t have happened. The books I studied should have hooked me, reeled me in and made me fall in love with them. They were great books but the teaching of them left an awful lot to be desired. Educators seemed to have forgotten that writers don’t write for their work to be analysed, critiqued and dissected. They write as they have a story to tell and they hope that someone, somewhere, will derive pleasure from it. If you don’t allow someone to enjoy a story in its entirety in the first place, you can’t expect them to get excited and become inspired over it.
My ‘O’ level exception was a book I had been given to read over the summer holidays. I didn’t want to read it. It’s not that I didn’t want to read. It’s just that I didn’t want to read this book. After being made to read about a spoilt, whiney American brat looking after a pony and despotic pigs, I really wasn’t in the mood for another literature great. Three weeks into the summer break, I decided that I had to, at the very least, make a start on this book. I figured that if I could just read a couple of chapters it would be an achievement. I remember sitting down at my parents’ dining table and slowly turning to the first page in trepidation. OK, perhaps one chapter would be enough to keep Mr. James happy.
I read the first chapter, and the next, and the next. I read all day and well into the night. I just couldn’t put it down. This book was the most amazing thing my fifteen year old self had ever read. It had everything in it: racism, class prejudice, sexual assault and rape, a single-working parent, drug addiction, mental health issues and feral children. The following day I didn’t leave my room. Like an anchorite, I shut myself away from civilisation and shunned all human contact. All I wanted to do was read. All I could think about was reading. I had to read. I was filled with such a longing and hunger to do so. I devoured word after word, gobbled-up page after page, and gorged on chapter after chapter but I still was left wanting more. I was never sated.
I finished this epic feast on the third day but, instead of feeling full and content, I was left with that hollow, empty feeling that you sometimes get when you finish a book that has really touched your soul. This feeling starts when you get to the last few chapters. When you realise that this fantastically wonderful experience is about to end. You slow down your reading and, try and eke out every word to put off the inevitable but it doesn’t work. It never works. Your journey comes to its unavoidable end and you are left wanting so much more.
I returned to school, in September, and for the first time in a long while was itching to discuss a book. I couldn’t wait for my first English class. I couldn’t wait to discuss, describe, tell, explain and, compare and contrast. Mr. James stood in front of the board and asked who had read the book over the summer. My hand shot into the air like a rocket into space. It stood tall and proud like a sentry on duty. I looked around the room eager to see the other girls’ faces brimming with excitement and bursting to share their experiences too. I expected their faces to be a mirror image of mine.
Instead I saw, to my horror, that my arm was friendless. Out of a class of thirty girls, in Year Five top set English, I was the only one who had read it. Even the teacher’s pets, ‘grade ‘A’ students’, and geeks hadn’t bothered. I didn’t see faces brimming and bursting with excitement. I saw twenty-nine faces look at me incredulously. This look soon turned to laughter and taunts of “swot!” Even my friends joined in. I was incensed and enraged by their attitude. How dare they dismiss the greatest thing I had ever read so casually? How dare they have not given this book a chance? Who did they think they were? I shouted and spluttered out the only response I could think of; the only thing that was fitting for such an enormous transgression. I yelled, “But have you read this book? Have you?”