Sunday, July 22, 2007

Where is the reading habit going?

The latest, and the last, instalment of Harry Potter is out. I am still awaiting the verdict from acclaimed critics and ardent fans, but the hype surrounding the book release has set me thinking. Yesterday, when I went to pick up my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I found that I was probably the only adult, apart from the harassed parent running to the bookshop early in the morning to shut their child's whining. In fact, I suspect the other parents thought I too was a parent who came to pick up the book for her child. Anyway, there I was, picking up the book for the sheer pleasure of reading. Yes, Harry Potter is a children's novel. But there is no rule that adults must not read children's novels, is there? There is no rule that intelligent 25 year-olds wanting to do research on terrorism must not escape into the fictional and extremely fascinating world of Hogwarts, Voldemort and Harry Potter for the sheer fun of reading an extremely well-written piece of literature. So, why is it so difficult for my "mature" adult friends to appreciate my taste in literature without looking upon me as a mentally retarded freak who likes to read "kiddish" books with the zeal of a 13 year old?

Ok, now I am ranting. Back to the point I wanted to make. Where has the reading habit disappeared to in the children of today? While it is certainly true that the Harry Potter series has bought many a kid back to books, Jo has not entirely succeeded in weaning today's child away from brainless cartoons and violent video games. I have been thinking about this whole issue ever since I got back home last evening. I live in an apartment where there are at least 25 children between the ages of 5 and 15. None of them, and I repeat, none of them were remotely interested in the fate of poor Mr. Potter in the final book released not 12 hours ago. I came home at 6 pm and buried my nose in the book almost immediately, pausing only for dinner, and finally stopping shortly before midnight because I could not keep my eyes open. The reading session continued this morning and continued only with brief pauses for bath and food until I finally finished the book around 2 pm. The kids around me seemed oblivious of the interest that the book generated and were quite content in watching Scooby Doo and Popeye on Cartoon Network, or whatever it is that they watch. To me, that was a travesty. I cannot imagine putting down an interesting book to watch a movie where I am not required to use my brain.

Unfortunately, creativity seems to be becoming a bad word for Generation Y (or Z or whatever) They are quite content copying answers from textbooks without questioning their rationality or relevance and watching stupid cartoons and equally stupid movies. They refuse to use the greatest gift God has ever given humankind, the ability to think and reason. Schools that they attend are equally content in accepting textbook answers to textbook questions and far from encouraging thought and creativity, actively discourage any variation from the accepted textbook answer. Any child impertinent enough to attempt an original answer is quickly sanctioned with low marks and a note to the parent complaining that the child is too arrogant for his own good. The charade does not stop there. The parents, obsessed as they are with grades and class ranking quickly stifle any more originality by ordering the child to do as the teacher says or face the consequences. And so starts the process of unquestioning acceptance of the written word. But wait, what are we doing? Why are we making a nation-full of people incapable of expressing original ideas and creative impulses? Why are we sticking to the colonial principle of making a nation full of clerks? If that is truly what we want, why are we complaining of the lack of research in Indian universities?

It is frustrating to sit here and see children of today scorning the reading habit as if it were the plague. How does one explain the pleasure of spending a lazy afternoon with an interesting book in hand? How does one explain the thrill of imagining the deadly magical duel between Harry and whoever attacks him instead of having to make do with what Warner Brothers chooses to show us on screen? Why are the children of today becoming so lazy that even picking up a real book with paper and cardboard is a bother? At this point, after observing children around me, I only have questions. The answers seem too elusive to hope for in the near future.

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