Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Books that grow with us

This is the sixth in a series of articles dedicated to school-going kids, written for the GUYS AND GIRLS section in Ceylon Today

Books are read by us. They grow with us. We keep up with them. They never age. And with them, part of our hearts and minds stay young. That's how timeless they can get. How timeless the "child" in us can get while reading them. Yes, they endure. They are immortal. And as long as we read them and are moved by them, they remain treasured. By us.

There was a time when we all loved certain authors. Let's think of one of them: Enid Blyton. Who doesn't remember her stories? Who doesn't remember dreaming about midnight feasts, kippers, treasure hunts, and secret passages? Who doesn't remember the characters in them and how we named ourselves and our friends after them? Enid Blyton was special. That we matured when we realised her stories were too fantastic doesn't matter right now. What matters is that they remain with us. All the way.

They are special for this reason. They win our hearts. And it's not just novels or enchanted islands or fairy-tales. Books after all come in different shapes and sizes, just like pretty much everything else. There are history books, for instance. Detective fiction. They win our hearts too. Big time. They enchant us and take us back to a different time and place. So much so that, after reading them and putting them down, it takes some time for us to realise where we are right now. Yes, they can make us forget. And take us elsewhere.

Take history, for instance. Probably the most boring subject out there, right? But think again. Have you read the exploits of Alexander the Great, the adventures of the Crusaders as they make their way to the Promised Land, the misadventures of Captain Cook as he travels halfway around the world? Have they ever failed to interest you? Have they ever failed to fire up your mind?

It's to do with your imagination. We can never be sure about how this person lived or how that kingdom was governed. We can only imagine and "image". But "imaging" people and places in our minds is fun. And that's where books come in. They never picture for us what it would have been like to live in another time or place. They just let our imagination work. That's not the case with television. Or films. With TV, everything is spoon-fed to you. The screen shows you everything and that leaves nothing for your imagination. Not so books. They make us think. All the way.

We have our interests. They may not always coincide with what others like. Same thing with the books we read. Some of you may like Sherlock Holmes (like I do). If his stories fascinate you enough, you might even think that you're him, looking for clues, putting them together, and making out a pattern to solve crime. Same thing with those who like Sybil Wettasinghe, Richmal Crompton, or Stephen King.

But not everyone may share what you (like to) read. I know people who dislike Enid Blyton. They say she's too clich├ęd and her stories too fantastic to be believed. They've got a point. As much as I like her books, they do seem a tad too contrived. After all, would your parents let you off on trips and treasure-hunts every holiday season?

There are also those who don't move with the crowd with what they read. It's the easiest thing in the world to read what others do. It's harder to read (and like) what others don't. The world's greatest writers, after all, read the unlikeliest books in their childhood. Martin Wickramasinghe read the Hitopadesha when he was young. He never really went to school, but schoolchildren and University lecturers today read his books more than those of any other Sinhala writer.

It's also all to do with what and how you read at school. I know a professor who studied at a Catholic school. He told me a story. A priest had taught Shakespeare to his class. One day, he had picked a passage from Romeo and Juliet. He had recited these lines, spoken by Juliet to Romeo from her balcony:

Three words, dear Romeo, and good night indeed.
If that thy bent of love be honourable,
Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow,
By one that I'll procure to come to thee,
Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite;
And all my fortunes at thy foot I'll lay
And follow thee my lord throughout the world.

The professor had been in Grade Eight then. Shakespeare's English is different to the kind of English we read and write. A bunch of eighth graders aren't going to like that for long. So the priest recited those lines and said this: "Look boys, Juliet was passionately in love with Romeo. But it was very clear in her mind that this love must go to marriage and nothing else."

The whole class had laughed. And the professor remembers this. Even today.

That's one way stories stay in us. The teacher. It depends on how s/he teaches them. After all, we love to narrate. To listen. To imagine. Yes, even history lessons can be fun this way. But it also depends on how you listen. If you find it too heavy, too stuffed up, the story being read won't go in. It will stay where it is, poking at you but never really interesting you.

So yes, there will be books which will reside in you. Whatever author and whatever country produced them, we will continue to cherish their stories. Always. Whether at school or pretty much anywhere else, they will take to us. At once. And when they do, they will continue to live with us. Even when we grow up. When we mature. And when we begin to look down upon them.

Written for: Ceylon Today GUYS AND GIRLS, January 11 2015