There’s an evil part of me that wouldn’t half mind it if a researcher (in the pay of the video game maker, Electronic Arts) sidled up to me and said, “You know, there’s nothing more life-enrichingly immersive and literary than parachuting into a phalanx of zombies and eviscerating them with a length of pipe.” I’d pack up my little satchel of getting-children-to-read tricks and wend my way to the teacher farm in the sky, whistling Paul McCartney’s theme tune to Destiny.
Every year, I unveil my Book Week schtick in front of an increasingly sceptical and technocentric clientele. “I saw a choppy version on Blu-ray, sir,” they tell me when I ask if they’ve read The Golden Compass. “Bit shit,” they add.
Oh, I dance around them in assemblies, extolling the virtues of delving into another’s mind, of gorging oneself on the thought tapestries of an elder, being inducted into a complex web of philosophy or time travel, of reaching into the heart of things and re-emerging in a completely different state of mind. “Yeah, it didn’t grab me. Nothing happened much in the first chapter, so I went back to Graham Gorgonzola’s Fart Cheese Diary of Underpant Chronicles – for the pictures, you understand, sir.”
I’ve got nothing against Graham Gorgonzola’s Fart Cheese Diary of Underpant Chronicles (I have everything against Graham Gorgonzola’s Fart Cheese Diary of Underpant Chronicles); it’s just that all reading is not equal. And, whilst I teach in order that children become literate, I also teach because I’d like my students to have a freedom of thought that conceives of reading as more than simply the purposeful act of consuming ideas for entertainment or information.
Enrichment? Enlightenment? Are those the concepts that I’m reaching at in my efforts to get kids to love books the way I love books? Am I doomed to prance, ninny-like, around my students, championing books to the point where they have a false memory of me in blue tights and a ruff?
Is there something better about my love of Bulgakov than their love of Scooby Doo Scholastic movie tie-ins? Am I wrong in wanting my students to have more than a functionalist conception of reading? Am I layering rhetorical question upon rhetorical question in order to labour a point?
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in all the right places, and we’d be in complete agreement. We’d be together, toasting marshmallows over remaindered Geronimo Stiltons and having a really great conversation about magical realism.
However, you might think that the literary ideal is not for everyone; you might cling to your notion that reading is a functional act, the purpose of which is the freedom of the reader to decide. You, like many, may believe the author to be dead; and the reader to hold the upper-hand. After all, who, but the powerful, decide what is good and what is bad? Isn’t literature simply the soundtrack of the winners? And aren’t we losers doomed to consume Jeffrey Archer, Dan Brown, Virginia Andrews (she might be quite good for all I know) and James Clavell (who’s bloody brilliant – especially Richard Chamberlain in Shogun… and again in The Thorn Birds)?
That’s as may be (which doesn’t answer any of my questions, but seems to segue into this paragraph). But, this year, for Book Week, I shall no longer be cavorting like a literary minstrel about my charges, thrusting Michael Morpurgo into their faces and saying “He wears red and writes about animals in wars.” No.
This year, I shall run with their dogs of philistinism. I shall dress as Iron Man – for Iron Man was in a comic, which is a book. I shall dress as Iron Man, even though I have not read an Iron Man comic. All of my anecdotes about the character shall be based upon either the Lego Avengers console game or the Age of Ultron DVD. Should another teacher dress as Captain America (also from a graphic novel), I shall skirt about him warily lest he should thrust his shield into my atomic heart.
I shall festoon myself with cheese and write the word ‘DIARY’ upon my face. When students ask me what this pertains to, I shall proclaim myself ‘the Diary of Cheese’ and make humorous farting noises. All of this I do in the name of reading and its seemingly only now extrinsic value.
I shall dress up as Super Mario (for he was featured in a film of which a book was made) and I shall jump about the school, upon pipes and bricks; and I shall kick Neville (the school tortoise) into the face of a child dressed as Prospero.
And Prospero shall leap back, disassembled, crumbling into pixels. Or he shall leap up, avoiding said spinning tortoise, which shall rebound off a pipe and hurtle back into me, sending me blinking, flickering into oblivion. Either way, there shall be one less reader under God’s great eye.
And the Author will remain – his work, a cheat code, affording him infinite life.