Shock your parents, read a book!

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

When I was young, there was this poster in our library that read “Shock your parents, read a book”. To me, the slogan didn’t make any sense. My mother was (and still is) an avid reader and therefore wouldn’t have been surprised, let alone shocked, by a reading child. On the other hand – she always encouraged my reading and tried to interest me in all kinds of books as a child, be it fiction or non-fiction. Having grown up in a bookish environment, I was dumbfounded when years later I realised that in many families, reading is not an integral part of their everyday life.

Reading has given me so much when I was a child, it introduced me to new worlds, fed my imagination and taught me quite a bit of factual knowledge as well. Books and literature have played an important role in my personal development and I think that children who don’t read miss a lot.

Now, one might argue that for a 21st century child, books are obsolete and have been replaced by other media such as television and the internet. Of course it is true, to a certain extent, that other media offer different approaches to children and satisfy their curiosity in a different way. I don’t want to deny the advantages of an age-appropriate computer programme over a simple book when it comes to for example studying or learning a language. But I have the impression that we’ve reached a point where in some people’s opinion, book and especially children’s books have lost their right to exist.

In 1984, Austrian author Christine Nöstlinger gave a speech that has been published as her “Message to the Children in the World”. This little text is one of the most impressive things I have ever read on the importance of books, and almost thirty years after its publication, it’s still as relevant as it was back then. Let’s have a quick look at the text’s core message:

“[A]ll over the world, the TV belongs to those who are in power, and they are in favour of the world the way it is. Many books are in favour of that as well. But there are many books that tell you what’s really going on in the world and why it’s going on. (…) [B]ooks can be a kind of help that you don’t get from anyone else“.

Nöstlinger’s wise words sum up the many reasons why sometimes it’s advisable to pick up a book and read about a topic extensively instead of just relying on the tiny bits of information the daily news or the internet is providing us with. Unfortunately, many adults don’t think this way and pass on their attitude to their children, which is a pity. I believe that no child is born with a natural aversion against books or reading, the same way no child is born with a natural aversion against physical activity. Kids want to explore the world, and it’s up to the parents to provide them with adequate material. If you don’t read to your baby or toddler, it’s much less likely that 10 years later, he or she will be a bookworm. Every child should be introduced to various forms of written words at home and at kindergarten or school, and later on, they can still decide whether they want to stay on the book drug or not.

Reading will help kids to develop an ability to think critically or as Nöstlinger calls it, an ability “to distinguish wrong from right“. If you want to understand the world you live in, this ability is indispensable and should therefore be encouraged even in very young children.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want you to read War and Peace to your two-year-old. I just want you to take your toddler to the municipal library every now and then so that you can discover age-appropriate books together. There is no “right” or “wrong” reading material for a young child – the essential thing is that they discover the medium “book” as early as possible.

Or, in a slightly more populist way, “Shock your kids, give them a book”.

Do you want fries with that?

August 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

What does a literature graduate with a job say to a literature graduate without a job? – Dou you want fries with that?

Pretty damn funny, isn’t it? Well, I don’t think so. I’m currently in college, studying French and German literature and linguistics, and I get those jokes a lot. Most people don’t know that they have tickled a very sensitive nerve of mine there. I’ve wanted to study literature ever since 8th grade, but now that I am a year away from my bachelor’s degree, I’m facing a reality that is frighteningly close to these jokes.

Those who know me will agree that I’m not very talented at small talk. But there is one question that I fear more than all the others: “What are you studying?” I want to sound confident and bold when I tell people that I’m majoring in French and German, but I usually just mutter those two words and hope that we move on to the next subject. I can’t stand the jokes and comments, the disapproving and condescending looks of people who study “something real”. Why am I so ashamed of my studies? Literature is my passion and, in theory, I should be proud that I followed my heart.

Unfortunately, the whole “follow your heart” thing turned out to be bullshit. At the beginning, it seemed like a good idea to study the thing that I like most and that I’m good at, but I was so in love with the mere idea that I ignored all warnings from the people around me. By warnings I mean both the old jokes mentioned above and long, serious lectures about the bad job market for literature graduates. After high school, I had some hesitations whether to enrol in French and German literature or in something else, something that is more promising career-wise, but my emotions won against rationality.

I’m seriously not happy in college. Not because I don’t like the classes I’m taking (on the contrary – most of them are quite interesting and rewarding) but because I constantly worry about my future and wonder if it would have been better to have gone for med school, engineering or even a teaching degree. I’ve had long conversations with various people, some of whom encourage my decision and tell me that I will eventually find a job, but just like me, they can’t really picture what job this will be. Other people say that I’m irrational and irresponsible and that another degree would suit me better.

I seriously don’t know whom to believe. I know that the job market is everything but promising for me, and I’m constantly thinking of taking up something entirely different or switching to a teaching degree. But then I imagine myself in med school, learning by heart all parts of the human body, and I wonder if this Lena is more satisfied with her choices than I am. I doubt it.

Literature, unlike medicine or engineering, is a field of study that makes a very good hobby. If you’re an avid and attentive reader, you can analyse and discuss books with a cup of tea on your living room sofa and not in a dusty classroom with squeaky chairs. Maybe – for people like me who care a lot about what others think of them – it’s even better to solely read in your living room, in your own private bubble. And I know that no matter where my studies will lead me in the end, I’ll never turn my back to literature, no matter if it’s what earns me a living or what I waste my earned money on.

In the ideal case, it’s both at the same time.

The Story of an (un)healthy obsession

August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Imagine you came home and found your friends and family gathered in your living room. What you think is a surprise party turns out to be an intervention. They tell you that you can’t go on like this. That you might need professional help. That you are addicted to books, even obsessed with them. Of course you immediately rush to the closest bookshelf, grab a dictionary and look up obsession: “obsession, fixation – an unhealthy and compulsive preoccupation with something or someone”, the dictionary says.
Both Anas and I are obsessed with books and literature in general and with one book in particular. Each of us has one book that is the sun of our literary solar system. Anas is obsessed with Roberto Bolano’s 2666. Juli Zeh’s Spieltrieb is the heroin I inject into my bookworm veins. There are a number of questions now: Where does a literary obsession come from? Why exactly that book? And, is it really unhealthy to be obsessed with a book?

Spieltrieb, in my opinion, is the perfect novel. But does that justify an obsession with it? Yes, yes it does. I remember reading the book for the first time back in 2007 when I was 15 years old. I was doing an internship – in a bookstore, of course – and took the tramway there every morning which gave me a lot of time for reading every morning and afternoon. As soon as I opened the book, I was absorbed into a different world, far away from the commuters’ chit-chat. What was it that made Spieltrieb so special for me?
What impressed me the most was Ada, the novel’s female protagonist. She’s still one of the few characters in fiction that I have been able to identify with. Ada and I were about the same age and shared quite a lot of physical features and character traits. Yet, Ada was different from me. She felt like a cooler version of me, the badass girl that I so badly wanted to be back then. Ada, this has to be said, turns out to be a foolish teenage girl who is weaker than she appears to be, but I admired her nevertheless.
Of course, this is not enough to cause a true book obsession – imagine a book with a great main character but a terribly weak plot and horrible style. When it comes to novels, I’m a “classicist” (ask Anas). I don’t mind the occasional postmodern, fragmented novel, but I like a handy, compact and mostly linear plot. Zeh’s novel combines this structure with a very refined style and a simple, yet captivating plot, thereby creating my favourite novel of all times.

Now, what does that mean, “favourite novel of all times”?
First of all, this means that I compare every. other. novel. that I read to Spieltrieb, even novels that in their style or plot have absolutely nothing in common with Zeh’s masterpiece. Spieltrieb has set my personal benchmark for novels so that I am now constantly comparing other works of fiction to it. And since I found my own perfect novel, everything else that I read is a minor disappointment for me. But I’d never give up reading novels just because I’m convinced no other book will be as great as Spieltrieb – literature offers a ton of other good and not-so-good books that I wouldn’t want to miss. Here my obsession differs from the kind of fixation a “twihard” might be experiencing. For her (or much less likely, him), all other books aren’t even worth looking at because apparently all that counts is a 100-year-old sparkly virgin. Girls, here’s a piece of advice: Read, and you’ll discover other awesome universes!

Then, it means that I talk about Spieltrieb a lot. But I don’t shove it into other people’s faces, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. It’s something precious to me that I want to share with special people who mean something to me and of whom I think that they might appreciate the novel. The climax of my obsession is my project of translating it to English, a task unaccomplished so far, so that Anas would be able to read it.

The new Juli Zeh novelThe dictionary definition says that an obsession is an “unhealthy preoccupation” with something. Can a literary obsession be unhealthy? Until yesterday I thought it couldn’t. I thought my frequent preoccupation with this single novel was totally harmless. But yesterday in the bookstore, I saw a sign advertising the new Juli Zeh novel, Nullzeit, and in my excitement my pulse started to rise, I tripped at the end of the escalator, fell and broke my reading arm.
The second part of the last sentence is a downright lie, but I am pretty sure that it could have happened. Apart from that, a book obsession is a funny little quirk that is completely free of health risks.

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