Sunday, December 24, 2017

Reflections on a nation of non-readers

The rain spluttered, and then poured in gushes and torrents, as I hurried to the cafe that morning. I badly needed a cup of coffee, so I ordered one and waited, patiently, for the waiter to deliver while reading my copy of Against Interpretation. Susan Sontag and cold mornings in Colombo don’t exactly go hand in hand, but I needed something to kill the time. Then the waiter appeared, delivered my coffee, took the fee for that coffee, and left. I went on drinking and reading while the world around me moved on. It was about seven, I remember. About 15 minutes later another waiter appeared, glanced at my coffee (still unfinished), glared at my face, and told me to move to the back if I intended on reading further.

The waiter was clearly irritated, but I wasn’t, so perturbed and confused at his sudden flare up (after all he was my waiter and I was his customer: why did he have to talk to me like that?), I quickly finished my coffee and moved, not to the back of but away from the cafe. That cafe probably serves the best coffee anywhere in Colombo, but that encounter provoked me to look beyond the cosmetics of hunger and thirst and reflect, rather stoically, on the imperatives of reading and writing in closely knit, plebeian corners in the country. Now I get odd sensations whenever what I enjoy doing – reading and writing and whiling away the time thinking – is put down as quirks of an abnormal, stunted individual, and this encounter left me with the oddest sensation of them all. We were supposed to be a nation of readers, I had thought. I hate to be proven wrong in my assumptions of my own countrymen, but wrong I was.

In Sri Lanka, reading beyond the textbook, beyond what is deemed necessary in one’s interests in the short and long term, whether at school or at University or anywhere elsewhere, is considered a sign of foolishness. We no longer boast of commendable statistics when it comes to literacy, because that term is defined rather loosely and archaically. I can write my own name, and I assume so can that irate waiter, but the fact that he can do what I can does not mean that I am more literate than him, or that he is less illiterate than I am. But I am certain that, as a child, he would have subscribed to that line of thinking which dictates that if you can memorise what you are taught, and regurgitate what you memorise, you don’t need to peruse a book beyond what is prescribed. In Sri Lanka the reader is no longer a figure of respect, simply put, and in Sri Lanka, people no longer visit libraries and bookshops to read or to buy.

Part of the reason why we are so averse to reading, apart from the fact that with work and the commitments we are occupied with we lack time, is that we are taught, from an early age, to ignore anything more than what is recommended. If you take to poetry, to fiction, you are almost always put down by your friends. This is not because they envy you, but because we have embraced a school of thought that goes back to the 18 and 19th centuries, when the Industrial Revolution began flaring up. It is during that period that we see a bifurcation in our sensibility, as human beings, between the thinkers and the doers, or what Sontag once referred to as the literary-artistic and the scientific-technological. The one is deemed to be backward, metaphysical, an act of impassive thought, the latter forward, material, an act per se. Waiters no longer deem it necessary to know how to read a newspaper, a tragedy because they are no better or no worse than schoolboys and schoolgirls who are taught that it is not necessary to read a newspaper at all. Reading beyond what’s deemed readable is forbidden, regulated, censored, even at home.

Another reason is that we are selective about what we read. For centuries, we were told that pornography was not literature. (I subscribed to this view myself when I read Cleland’s Fanny Hill; now I regret it, because such an attitude stunts your ability to take in, fully, the aesthetics of the genre.) By that same token we were also taught that writers of popular fiction (in Sri Lanka, Karunasena Jayalath, Edward Mallawarachchi, and of course Sujeewa Prasannaarachchi) were not writers at all. But then pornography is literature – for if we consider the sudden appearance of an alien spaceship or planet, with no premonition, in science-fiction novels, as literature, we must extend the same considerations when it comes to sexual encounters and orgies that also appear suddenly, with no premonition – and many of whom we consider as serious writers today wrote for popular audiences back in their day: Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Shakespeare.

This culture of selectivity obviously extends to the dichotomy between the highbrow and the lowbrow. The waiter will find a newspaper of some utility when he has to read up on the latest updates to a train strike that’s crippling him on his way back home every day, but a student may consider a newspaper, not for its utility, but for its value. The gap between utility and value is there for all to see, when it comes to books and indeed the arts in general, simply because we are still caught up in that sensibility which the Industrial Revolution brought about. A waiter will see in me reading a critic a sign of irrationality, even madness, just as I will see in his repudiation of books and writers a sign of his lack of proper culture. But this is not class bound, because the rift between the artistic and the scientific is not an extension of the rift between the rich and the poor. For all we know, the waiter’s own son, taking after him in every other respect, may well turn out to be a great reader, though the father may want him to change.

Along with the distinction between the highbrow and the lowbrow you have Ananda Coomaraswamy’s distinction between objects of adornment and objects of utility: the distinction between mass consumption and discriminating tastes. The world before the 19th century, in Europe, sustained such a rift, but with the advent of the factory system there came about a deeper such rift with a culture of depersonalisation: you could duplicate a Mona Lisa and hang it on your wall and look at it with some satisfaction, though it wasn’t an original. The factory system, in short, opened us to a world of impersonal duplicates. In Tintin and the Lake of Sharks Rastapopoulos and his gang steal artefacts from museums and replace them with poorly made substitutes; the villains focus their attention on Professor Calculus, who has developed a prototype for a duplicating machine which, in their hands, will mean thefts and substitutions that will go unnoticed by officials. Calculus is a scientist, and with his genius he has distilled the post-19th century sensibility that would give way to the 21st century with its own version of the duplicating machine: the 3D printer.

We rely on scientists and cold, calculating reason, now also taken over by commerce, so much that we no longer need to rely on the library and our creative instincts for answers and solutions. The canvas has been replaced by the conveyor belt, and in place of our imagination we have a new imagination: that of unfettered production and consumption. The one necessitates the other, moreover; there can be no production without consumption, no consumption without production. That is what explains, more than anything else, our lack of enthusiasm for reading: we judge any act on the basis of its use, and we have long given up our creative instincts in favour of the professionals we rely on when it comes to seeking solutions for our problems: the lawyer, the doctor, the plumber, the commercial artist. Art in the modern sensibility survives and flourishes through advertising, though barely, while art as pure art hardly survives at all. The books read, the titles recommended, are thus categorised (even our libraries are categorised: according to genre, author, etc) as useful only insofar as it yields an immediate, productive outcome.

So what topics, or areas, does that terse encounter with the waiter leave me with? In no order, they are: the relative strengths and trajectories of Sinhala and Tamil on the one hand and English on other; the formation of a cohesive culture of readers and writers within our schools; and the rift between compulsorily and willingly obtained knowledge. All these issues I will get to later, because connected to one another they all get back to my earlier point: that we are a society of doers and thinkers, and the doers, like that waiter, see in the thinkers the cranks and the misfits the former have been conditioned to not become from an early age. And how? By not reading.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, December 24 2017