Follow Your Passions (a brief essay about reading)

5 December 2010

The Gulbenkian Institute in Lisbon asked me to write a brief text about reading and children.  Here is what I came up with.


Follow Your Passions
By Richard Zimler

When my students ask for advice, the only one I usually give them is: follow your passions!
By that, I mean that they should choose a profession and a way of life that stimulates them, that makes them eager to keep learning, that gives them the sense that they are exactly where they should be.
After all, we only have one life on earth, and it’s too short to spend at a job we don’t like, living with people we don’t love, or wearing a mask.
I feel the same about reading. Children should be presented with a very wide variety of books, about many different subjects and from vastly different cultures, and then be allowed to choose what most stimulates and interests them.
Of course, that means that they may choose books about fashion or sports or Hindu mythology instead of classical European literature, but so what? I can’t think of any point in making a young boy or girl read Camões or Jane Austin or Racine (after giving them an initial exposure to such authors), when what they really want is J.K. Rowling, a biography of Pelé or the latest book by Danielle Steele.
Where did we get the patently absurd notion that forcing a kid to read works of literature that professors at Stanford or the Universidade de Lisboa consider important will make them more cultured or more responsible citizens? Or give them a love of reading. Or make them feel fulfilled.
Telling people what they ought to read only tends to produce people who hate books. And who despise culture.
Look at the abysmally low reading levels in Portugal if you have any doubt.
I know a great many adults who have read everyone from Dante to Dickens to Eça de Queiroz while in high school or university, but who have never learned to think for themselves and who have failed to retain their curiosity about other cultures and other ways of thinking about the world. What good is that? And once they finish university, they stop reading, of course.
For that reason, I am against literary canons. I don’t want to be told what books will make me appear intelligent. Or give me cachet amongst the literary elite of New York or Paris. Just like I don’t want to be told what I should like to eat or wear.
Give kids a wide choice of books and let them get familiar with all their options. Give them a chance to learn to love to read and then simply encourage them to follow their passions.
And when they are very young, read to them every night before bed.
Maybe some of them will go from comic books to Greek mythology to William Faulkner and Stendahl. Maybe they will discover what makes great literature great. After all, I did. Or maybe they won’t. But whatever their individual reading journeys, they should be encouraged by parents and teachers to discover what makes them feel fulfilled.
Of course, the approach I’m proposing would create more work for professors, since they would have to pay close attention to the individual tastes of their pupils. And they would have to keep their judgments about what is important literature and what isn’t largely to themselves.
And this approach would also be dangerous to governments, since it would encourage kids to think for themselves and follow their own desires instead of a preconceived set of cultural rules.
Good. We need professors who see their students as individuals, and we need citizens who challenge authority.
And, in the end, I think it’s the only way literature will survive. It’s the only way that we will create successive generations of young people who will be eager to discover Pessoa, Proust, Rilke, Kafka and all our other wonderful and insightful writers for themselves.

Michael Fieni