Reading as Antidote
Experience is often considered the ultimate form of learning, the ne plus ultra of education. What we do and how we act is taken as the full measure of what we know, and what we might yet know. The past is at a premium, with knowledge as a synonym for memory carrying with it the presumption that we don’t forget, misunderstand or misinterpret. Also implied is that experience can be transferred between people, regardless of background, inclination and aptitude. So we speak of ‘experience sharing’, as though actions can be lifted out of context and passed around, instantly relevant to anyone who grasps at them.
The problem with this somewhat stylised scenario is that it tends towards the non-literary. There are many situations in which practical, hands-on learning combines very well with reading and more interpretive activities. The current trend towards service-learning in universities is a perfect example of that. Students are given the chance to apply what they’ve learned – through instruction and their own reading – to community service projects that they organise and manage with minimal oversight from lecturers.
But what about community organisations themselves? Moving away from established, funded NGOs, many grass-roots groups draw together volunteers from lower socio-economic backgrounds who work too long or too hard every day to have much of a chance to read. In situations like these, learning from other people’s experience becomes an attractive, easy option.
I recently attended a meeting that began the long process of organising a self-help society for migrant workers in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong. These people, mainly women, are extremely hard working for very low wages. The idea behind the group is to help domestic helpers in times of crisis, and to educate members about educating themselves. The sorts of areas we’re dealing with range from the more obvious need for familiarity with legal rights – both in the workplace and within society at large – to less obvious lack of information about where and when to seek medical help for potentially embarrassing conditions.
As the meeting progressed a friend mentioned that one of the primary measures of self-education should always be to read, and to read as often as possible. Given that many of these people work up to 18 hours a day, that could be a very limited exposure to the written word, but it seemed important nevertheless.
Unfortunately, the reaction was negative – not from the main group members, but from the seasoned and unusually insightful people who were coordinating the meeting. One said that she would fall asleep if she had to read a book, and the other spoke at length of networking and the difference between book learning and ‘relevant’ experience as the basis of transferring important information.
Until that moment I’d though of reading as a supplement to experience, but now I realise it could well be an antidote.
Why do people shy away from reading, especially those who could most benefit from it? Part of the problem – at least that part removed from questions of literacy – lies in a false distinction between doing and witnessing. Readers seem to sit tight while the book happens to them, which is much the same as many criticisms of television. And as I argued in an earlier post, it also reveals a focus on events, and events never really happen between sterile pages.
But, of course, anyone who reads for pleasure knows that events do happen in books, and not just events imagined or once recorded. Each book is much like a private network, taking you out of your own head and into the traces of other thoughts, other solutions. Books with multiple authors are no more effective that those with single authors in this sense because the activity lies in the vital exchange between the writer, who has passed on, and the reader, who is passing through.
Perhaps most importantly, books allow the reader a certain amount of synthesis in pauses to consider. In a conversation, when collecting information from other people, you can’t always call time out and think for a while. The babble goes on, and on.
Mark Vonnegut captured the vitality of this relationship between reader and writer in a recent comment on his famous father’s work:
Reading and writing are themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that no one has ever felt the way you have. What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that things are much more up for grabs than they thought they were. The world is a slightly different place because they read a damn book. Imagine that.
Kurt Vonnegut kept up the conversation until he died, challenging, cajoling, making sure that other people changed the world, one little bit at a time.
Despite their promise and their many triumphs, groups can curtail true inquisitiveness at times. Just the wrong comment, a slightly errant attitude, can become the basis of error heaped upon error. Groupthink, most people call it. So my friend and I will be encouraging members of the budding organisation we’re involved with to read when they can. And, after pausing to think, to pass what they’ve discovered to others who might read on.
In the clamour for rights, amidst shouts for recognition, the most subversive actor might just be sitting aside, quietly reading a book.