5.25.2014

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #13

A boy, maybe age 8, was confused about what he needed. He said he needed "chapter books about the human body," which sounded to me like two things - books about the human body for a school project, and chapter books, meaning junior fiction that is not a picture book, not a series, and not a graphic novel. But he was convinced he needed "chapter books about the human body." He would not be helped, casting aside everything I found for him, and getting increasingly frustrated.

Following him around the library (it's a Sunday, so I'm working overtime, not at my own location), I ran into his parents and his older sister. Boy's Father said, "Is he giving you a hard time?" He said this nicely, not in a mean or menacing way.

I said, "Oh no, he's fine. I'm just trying to understand what he's looking for." I had books from two popular funny series in my hands.

Boy's Father took them from me and said, "No, this is garbage. We're not reading these."

I said, "Since he needs a chapter book, why don't we look for something better."

"What does that mean, 'chapter book'?" BF asked.

"Fiction--" I began.

"No. No fiction," BF said. "Let him read about science, or history, or let him practice his math."

I said gently, "He might need to read chapter books for his language skills. Reading fiction will improve his reading, which will help him in all subjects."

Things were getting generally messy, with Mom speaking in their first language, sister filling a cart with all the books she wanted, BF attempting to lecture boy, and boy tuning everyone out. I went back to the reference desk.

The family appeared a bit later. While the rest of the family was at check-out, BF came up to the desk. He clearly wanted to continue our conversation, which I've re-created here to the best of my ability. BF was unfailingly polite throughout, as was I. I made sure to listen closely to what he was saying, and to acknowledge that I heard him, to not rush in with my own answers too soon. I was pleased with myself for being patient, for not arguing, for not being confrontational, while still offering a different perspective. Damn, have I matured!

BF: You know, all that fiction, it's not good for them. It's a drug.

LK: Hmm, well, it could be. But compared to other drugs, it's a pretty positive thing.

BF: No, no, it's an addiction. I see it at home with my eldest. Once they start on those novels, that's all they want to do.

LK: You know, reading anything is good. We believe reading has inherent value.

BF: It's an addiction. It's like movies or video games. Once they start, where does it end.

LK: Do you know, kids who read a lot have greater reading comprehension, and that helps them in all their subjects - science, history, everything. Kids who read a lot do better in school, and that improves their life chances.

BF: Yes, I'll give you that. Reading comprehension is important. But why can't they get that from reading about history, about politics, about science, about the real world? Why do they have to read stupid novels? My eldest at home only wants to read something called Naruto.

I smiled. Manga. It is an addiction!

LK: Does he read anything else?

BF: She. A girl. Her grades are excellent. Very good grades.

LK: So maybe she wants to read Naruto for fun. Would that be OK?

BF: I am all for fun. I don't think children have to work every minute. Fun is good. But those stupid books, they are an addiction. It's what's wrong with our whole society.

LK: Hmm. If I were to pick what was wrong with our society, I don't think I'd say it was too much reading.

We both chuckle. Then:

BF: Do you have religion? Do you have a spiritual life?

Naturally this question took me by surprise. Mentally scrolling through possible answers, I discarded the obvious "That's not really relevant here," or the truthful "No, I don't," as possibly sidetracking an interesting conversation.

LK: Yes, I do. Not sure how that fits in, though.

BF: I'm surprised. I think if you have religion, you would know the answer to this. You would know that we are not helping our children by having them read this awful stuff. All through North America, we emphasize culture, and the arts, and reading, the movies, the plays, the books. Then when we need scientists we have to import them from other countries. Better to develop the science and the math, then bring the arts in later. Once you spoil your brain with arts and reading, you lose the ability to do the science.

LK: Hmm. I don't know about that. I'm a writer and a reader, but I love science.

BF: Perhaps you are exceptional. (Smiling)

LK: (Smiling back) Oh, I don't know... I'm a librarian. I think reading is beneficial for children. For everyone, but especially for children.

BF: At least he should read about the real world. Science, history.

LK: We have a lot of excellent nonfiction he could read, too. Great books on the environment, on animals, on the ancient world - whatever interests him.

BF: Yes? There is nonfiction like that for children?

LK: Absolutely.

BF: OK then, next time we're here I will ask you to help us find some.

LK: It's a deal.

BF: It's been very nice speaking with you. Thank you for your help and have a wonderful day.

21 comments:

John F said...

Oh dear. If I look left and over my shoulder right now, I see about fifteen feet of floor-to-ceiling drugs. Some of them are even graphic novels, though no manga.

I suspect the father means well, but - wow. I think we need stories, almost as much as air, water, or food.

James Redekop said...

BF: It's an addiction. It's like movies or video games. Once they start, where does it end.

It ends with a greater sense of wonder for the world, a well-developed ability to empathise with other people, and greater general joy overall. :)

"I don't know why you read all this fiction, it's nothing but lies. There's only one book you need, and that's the Bible. -- my grandmother to her son, my father (a professor of English literature)

laura k said...

Ha, well said, James. We cannot overestimate what reading brings us. And I think John F is right, all evidence points to a basic human need for story.

But I remind myself of how so many of us find our way despite our parents' strange ideas.

(He definitely means well, but little good that will do the young man's fan.)

laura k said...

Damn this touch screen keyboard! Young *manga* fan.

DavidHeap said...

Still genuinely puzzled by this one: " I think if you have religion, you would know the answer to this." ... as an argument for "pure" science education. Quite apart from my own view (that religious texts are best seen as fictional metaphors), how does a sincerely spiritual person take that as support for exclusively scientific reading?
Interesting that you opted to "go along" at that point, LK.

laura k said...

I was so puzzled by that, too! I cannot fathom what he might have meant.

Re going along, I felt that if I answered truthfully, he would use that as an "out": ah, of course you feel that way, you lack religion. And we might end up talking about religious beliefs, which I do NOT want to do with customers!

I thought if I just said yes without offering any details - not even, yes I am [whatever] - the question would be a dead-end.

James Redekop said...

Check the quote from my grandmother for the answer to that. Fiction is lies; lies are sinful. Admittedly, this father was a little more flexible than my grandmother, since he's willing to allow for non-fiction books...

Amy said...

Wow, this is so foreign to my way of thinking that I am having a hard time getting my head around it. Books are like drugs? Books may be addictive, I'll grant him that, but I'd rather have my child reading ANYTHING than playing video games or watching TV during those hours.

Fiction taught and teaches me about human nature, about empathy, about humor, about love, about war, about families, etc., etc. I cannot imagine my life without it.

And I am impressed that you stayed so calm and rational. You are now officially more mature than I am. Not that you weren't before, but this is solid proof.

131220 said...

Religions are full of stories and "lies". The christian and islamic parables are not interpretted to be actual fact -- they were teaching tools.

impudent strumpet said...

That's so 18th-century!

I'm very curious what this gentleman does in his free time/to relax (Does he read? Does he watch TV or movies?)

And my first thought is that it's weird that he ties in religion, because the religious texts with which I'm familiar read like stories. But then, there are many religions with which I'm not familiar. I wonder if there are religious texts that are completely non-story-like?

And from the #LeastImportantThing files, I never realized that series books didn't count as chapter books! I always thought the only requirement was that it had to have chapters!

James Redekop said...

For that matter, non-fiction reading is also addictive. I had all of the collections of Isaac Asimov's science essays, and read them repeatedly.

James Redekop said...

Religious texts don't count because they are True Histories, not fictional stories.

Except for other peoples' religious texts, which are, of course, False Histories.

laura k said...

I'm very curious what this gentleman does in his free time/to relax (Does he read? Does he watch TV or movies?)

I'm guessing that he'd say it's different for him, because he's already a formed adult, already knows science and math and has a career and a family (i.e. is successful). Whereas the kids are not formed yet, and he must help them develop successfully.

And my first thought is that it's weird that he ties in religion, because the religious texts with which I'm familiar read like stories. But then, there are many religions with which I'm not familiar. I wonder if there are religious texts that are completely non-story-like?

I can guarantee you that this man's religion is full of stories.

[I commend everyone on this thread for not inquiring about the man's ethnic background and religion!]

And from the #LeastImportantThing files, I never realized that series books didn't count as chapter books! I always thought the only requirement was that it had to have chapters!

Some series are chapter books. Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Diary of Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, etc. - both. But some series for younger kids are not really chapter books yet - Geronimo Stilton and other very short boooks that come out in huge anonymous series - those are somewhere in between.

laura k said...

Religious texts don't count because they are True Histories, not fictional stories.

Except for other peoples' religious texts, which are, of course, False Histories.


Bingo.

johngoldfine said...

[I commend everyone on this thread for not inquiring about the man's ethnic background and religion!]

I'm not inquiring and I don't care, but surely BF's attitude toward the reading-fiction-addiction might have something to do with his own background, values, and beliefs, and I don't think it necessarily perpetuates stereotypes to wonder about those.

He could be a fundamentalist Christian just as James suggests, although when I taught second grade reading, I once had a conversation with the orthodox rabbi father of one of my students very similar to the one you describe here. Or BF could come from some other obscurantist sect or faith of which there never seem to be a shortage.

I'm sure the father's motives were good and his concern for his son was real--and I think you did well to keep cool, to stay professional, and to advocate for fiction and reading--but clearly the kid was confused by the conflicting demands and pressures on him, and it's hard for me to imagine this boy's growing-up to be anything other than a long struggle with an overbearing father whose own obvious intelligence is all bent on enforcing a narrow world view.

One of my favorite books is Edmund Gosse's 'Father and Son: A Study in Two Temperaments.' Gosse's father, a member of the Plymouth Brethren, would surely have agreed with BF. Gosse says of his parents' libary (and they were both educated and intelligent): "The range of these [books] was limited for storybooks of every description were sternly excluded. No fiction of any kind, religious or secular, was admitted into the house."

Gosse writes: "There was an extraordinary mixture of comedy and tragedy in the situation which is here described, and those who
are affected by the pathos of it will not need to have it
explained to them that the comedy was superficial and the tragedy
essential."

Your post touches both the comedy and the tragedy, Laura.

laura k said...

I'm not inquiring and I don't care, but surely BF's attitude toward the reading-fiction-addiction might have something to do with his own background, values, and beliefs, and I don't think it necessarily perpetuates stereotypes to wonder about those.

You're right that it doesn't necessarily perpetuate stereotypes. But it does sometimes. I suppose it depends on the intentions of the enquirer. I wanted to make the point that any number of religious backgrounds could lend itself to this behaviour.

I'm not sure if the son's confusion was down to the father's demands or the demands of the school, or perhaps both.

it's hard for me to imagine this boy's growing-up to be anything other than a long struggle with an overbearing father

My own growing up was exactly this, a long struggle against an overbearing father. Perhaps that is why I want so desperately to believe that the kid, and especialy his older, manga-reading sister, will be fine, will find a way to become themselves, despite their father's desire to make them into something else.

I forgot to mention that BF said his daughter's grades were good, but she was not meeting his expectations in terms of religious studies. Oy. Poor girl.

James Redekop said...

He could be a fundamentalist Christian just as James suggests

I didn't suggest he was, though. I brought up the example of my grandmother -- but she wasn't a fundamentalist either; she was Mennonite Brethren, which is different (fundamentalism is a 19th century American movement; Mennonitism is a 16th century Anabaptist movement).

BF's conversation suggests that his religion inspires his antipathy towards reading, but there are any number of religions which could do that. In fact, I wouldn't think he's a fundamentalist Christian, because the current fundamentalist movement in the US likes some forms of fiction (such as the Left Behind books) and definitely does not like the kinds of non-fiction science books you'd find in a public library.

BTW, my half-sister is now well on her way to being fluent in Japanese, thanks to her love of manga. I claim a small part of the credit for that, as I gave her a copy of Myasaki's Nausicaa when she was about 12, though she was already into manga by then.

richard said...

That was good work, Laura.

laura k said...

Thank you very much!

Kristina said...

Nicely done 👍

Kristina said...

Great job 👍