Reading as a cultural achievement – how people are connected to books

Reading as a cultural achievement – how people are connected to books


by Tankred Schaer

Lately I picked up a notebook on which I read the following quote:

“In the end everything will be fine and if it does not work out well, it will not be the end.”

These words come from Oscar Wilde, who lived from 1854 to 1900 and became famous with his novel “The Portrait of Dorian Gray”. Some know the play “The Canterville Ghost” or perhaps “The Happy Prince and Other Fairy Tales”, from their school days, also written by Oscar Wilde.
So that is what literature can do. It can surprise, bring about a change in the thoughts, lead to new insights suddenly and unexpectedly, and it can encourage readers and build up optimism.
Like this author, many other authors have laid down their thoughts and invite us to follow them mentally and to start an intellectual dialogue with them. In this way, the authors enable us to experience alien worlds in a very comprehensive sense; because this does not only mean the natural world, but also the spiritual worlds. Books allow to reflect on one’s own life, one’s own existence. We enter into an exchange with the author, with the characters he has created, we get in touch with other people and the world. And this is not a consumption taking place, but a mental work also causing a change in the reader.
Marcel Proust writes in “Days of Reading”:

“There may be no days of our childhood that we’ve experienced as fully as those [...] we’ve spent with a favourite book. Everything that they seemed to fulfill for the others, and what we put aside like a vulgar interruption of a divine pleasure: the play for which a friend wanted to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the disturbing bee or the annoying ray of sunshine that forced us to lift our gaze from the page or to change our place; the supplies given for the afternoon meal, which we left lying untouched besides us on the bench, while the sun was inexorably weakening in the blue sky over our head; the dinner for that we had to go back to the house, and during which we thought of going up to our room immediately afterwards to finish the interrupted chapter, in all of that our reading would have seen us as nuisance but on the contrary engraving such a gentle remembrance in us (which, in our judgment today, is so much more precious than what we read with devotion at that time) that, if we sometimes leaf through these books of yore, they remain like the only calendars kept of these escaped days, and it happens with the hope of seeing the defunct dwellings and ponds reflected on their pages.”

What happens when we read such a text? Maryanne Wolf writes in the book “Proust and the Squid. The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”:

“First, be aware of what you’ve been thinking while reading this section, and then try to analyse exactly what you’ve done when reading – for example, how you started to connect Proust with other thoughts. If you are like me, Proust has evoked deeply hidden memories of books in you – the secret places where you could browse undisturbed by siblings and friends, the beating of the heart and the goose bumps that Margaret Mitchell, Mark Twain and Karl May have caused, the dim light of the flashlight under the covers that your parents would hopefully not notice. This is Proust’s reading refuge, and it is ours, too. There we experienced for the first time what it was like to roam obliviously Middle earth, Liliput and Narnia. There, for the first time, we slipped into the skins of figures we would never meet – princes and beggars, dragons and virgins, Indian chiefs and a German-Jewish girl hiding from the Nazi soldiers in a Dutch loft.”

We can also put it this way: As we read, we learn to see the world through the eyes of another person. No medium is able to do that as good as books can. And only then it becomes possible to really understand each other and to enter a friendship with your fellow human beings.
However: Who can say that he takes enough time for these things? The way our society is built up – the fast electronic communication, the ubiquity of the smartphone, the timed windows of attention, and the speed of time passing by – there seems to be no time for reading. Most of you will know the picture Michael Ende has created with his children’s book “Momo”: The grey gentlemen come into the city and become more and more numerous. They smoke little grey cigars, and a coldness originating from them, against that you cannot protect yourself. The gentlemen, however, are the agents of the Timesaving Bank of time demonstrating the people how much time they can save. But the people have less time the more they save because the grey gentlemen are actually stealing their time.
Literature is a way out of the time trap into the freedom of thinking.
Aforementioned Maryanne Wolf, points to the special significance of reading for the development of the human brain in her book “Proust and the Squid. The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”.

“We are not born bookworms. People invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we set in motion a restructuring of our brain that in turn opened up unprecedented ways of thinking, which in turn redirected our species’ mental evolution. Reading is one of the most remarkable individual inventions in history; not least, it made the historiography possible.”

Reinhard Piper, founder of the Piper publishing house, expressed himself in a similar way when he referred to books as our “means of humanisation”. Against this background, the promotion of reading has a very special significance. Incidentally, I do not believe that it is the right way to enrich books with digital content; but the books themselves, on their own, sparkle with their own charm and play to their inherent strength when they are allowed to develop their power in their dialogue with their young readers. Digitisation is even becoming a threat to the book as cultural heritage when the nightmare of the digital classroom does become reality. An army of so-called experts is hammering it home to the German public that nothing is more important than introducing the digital classroom, electronic learning animations, just-in-time learning and power-point competence, as quickly as possible. Already, loud voices can be heard in favour of digitising textbooks completely and instead of teaching handwriting to the children at school, to immediately teach them typing on keyboards. But at the same time, there is no indication of any beneficial effects of digital pedagogy, despite the many research billions from relevant sources which have been spent. Mind you, numerous studies do indicate that digital learning methods significantly lower learning outcomes.
Nevertheless we, the friends of books and reading, must note that we are on the defensive – and there is no justification for this state of affairs, for nothing is in sight that could replace reading, literature, and books.
The Piper publishing house manager Felicitas von Lovenberg states:

“We have invested huge sums of money that we will probably not see again in digital business portfolios. And this realisation comes to us at a time when we understand that we are losing buyers and readers to a frightening degree. And so it’s not so much about the question: Which channels do people want to use for reading? We serve everything. Rather, it is about preserving the cultural heritage that reading represents from extinction.”

On the one hand, it is about the book as a cultural asset, but there is much more to it, namely the political dimension of books. I quote from a brochure of the German Publishers & Booksellers Association “For the Word and for Freedom”:

“We are proud to trade a special commodity – the book. [...] No other industry deals with such manifold content and opinions as we, the book industry, do. [...] Factual and scientific literature initiates cognitive processes, provides explanations for the past and the present, and gives an outlook on the future. Thus, books play an essential role in the formation of public opinion.
   Freedom of expression and free formation of opinions are a prerequisite for a free society and the success of democracy.”

Every year, around 85,000 titles appear in Germany. The stationary book trade is still the most important distribution channel for books. In Germany, nearly 50 per cent of all books are purchased in a bookstore, while about 20 per cent fall to the Internet retailing. Online trading was primarily at the expense of the major bookstore chains and department stores. In addition, the IT industry misjudged the mentality of readers: A person raised with books does not just buy texts, but books. And they are made of paper. On the reader you can at best load entertainment literature from the revolving stand. But most of the readers want to hold the demanding novel, the substantial non-fiction book physically in their hands.
The independent bookstores will, I am sure, keep their place as long as there is a need for books. The local bookstores are able to provide over 90 per cent of ordered books from the evening to the next morning, and you do not even have to pay for a prime offer. They have a modern Internet presence. They conduct readings and take part in numerous action days. Their local anchorage in the village is important to them.
The book “Soup for Syria“, edited by Barbara Abdeni Massaad, is an example of booksellers’ activities. She says:

“When I visited the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, I said to them, ‘If I were a hairdresser, I would cut your hair for free. Because I’m a cookbook author and photographer, I will try to help in my way through my work.”

The result is this book. It contains impressive portraits of people from Syria – after all, the author is a photographer – as well as 80 different soup recipes and a preface by Rafik Schami, who supports the author’s idea. The idea for this book was born in 2015 at the book fair. Barbara Abdeni Massaad was able to convince international celebrity chefs to create a soup cookbook together. Over 60 men and women participated. It is quite deliberately a cookbook about soups: Soups are not only nutritious, but also give comfort and warmth.
100% of the proceeds of this book go to the association Schams e.V., which was founded on the initiative of Rafik Schami and the Tübingen publisher Hans Schiler. The association supports Syrian children and adolescents in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.     •

(Translation Current Concerns)

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