The Writing on the Wall by Trevor Plumbly
‘Reading is the cheapest form of education’ was a favourite cliché of my mother. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder whether this particular gem was born out of wisdom or the reality that there wasn’t too much in the way of an economic alternative available. As I’ve mentioned before, my schooldays weren’t my happiest years; I was a runt of a child, skinny to the point of emaciation, overly sensitive and painfully shy. As a result, I favoured books more than the normal interaction other kids seemed to enjoy via sport or group activity. The welfare officer ruled our particular roost at that time with powers far beyond his intelligence or sensitivity; his solution to the overcrowding and sheer financial need in our house was to ship me off at regular intervals to any boarding school designated to take the odd charity kid. At one stage, I spent a year at a Catholic convent school despite being Church of England but nobody seemed to regard that as a problem apart from the nuns who essentially decided that physical punishment was the best method of pointing me towards salvation. Far from providing a broad education, this only served to confuse things even more for me: I vividly remember at the age of about 11 sitting with 14 year olds for English lessons and then being demoted to the 9 year olds for Maths. But at least all these institutions (and that’s what they were) had a library, which housed a world of heroes who never failed and villains who only caused fictional harm.
After leaving school at 15, I discovered by necessity that reading was also the cheapest form of entertainment along with being a means of extended schooling. The Saturday visits to the public library became the week’s highlight; I used to wander aimlessly round rows of books looking at the titles then spend the rest of the morning flicking through the first few pages of a dozen or more to select the five I was allowed to borrow for the week. Without the restrictions of a school library and the dictates of the teaching system, my tastes changed. P G Wodehouse and W E Johns gave way to Dickens, Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, some predictable poets and even a stab at the Russian classics. Looking back, somewhat sadly, I never developed a capacity for non-fiction which along with poor vision probably accounts for my current addiction to a daily dose of fictional junk.
As a result of the eye condition, I am restricted to an e-reader these days, and indeed glad of having one, but with their increased popularity I can’t help feeling that our kids are being short-changed by technology when it comes to literature. There’s a degree of benign religion attached to real book people that young e-book users will probably never experience: the smell and the peace of the old public library, the quiet, unhurried librarians that I regarded with awe and envy mixed with the suspicion that they had read every book in the place. I can’t help but wonder if progress will render books as being unwieldy, with libraries reduced to becoming virtual filling stations for tablet computers. Second-hand bookshops, once a haven for the serious and those seeking cheap paperbacks, have all but disappeared. It’s sad really, books in my generation were almost living entities, from the weighty dictionary we were forced to lug out over a misspelt word to the dog-eared paperback, all showing signs of age and wear, but rarely of misuse.
Reading Writing and Rhetoric
Since I started writing this, a report has been published which concludes that young children are finding it increasingly difficult to express themselves literally and orally. I can’t help wondering if the ‘now’ ethic of technology is largely to blame. Put simply, today’s kids are losing the ability to concentrate; push button education and entertainment isn’t producing the wonders its proponents promised; even dialogue, once regarded as the cornerstone of any kids’ movie, seems to be regarded as a boring interruption to the action sequences. I am not suggesting that digitalization will eventually destroy books as we know them but, almost daily, words are abbreviated and bastardised to suit the new speed and space requirements. We should all be aware of the danger that represents to everyday use and enjoyment of good language.