November 06, 2004

Philip Pullman on Democracy and Reading

In The Guardian, Philip Pullman has published a lengthy essay on democracy and reading. Like a lot of his essays, it's an odd combination of perceptive and pompous, and it has a condescending strain that bothers me a little, but I still think it's worth a look:

One of the most extraordinary scenes I've ever watched, and one which brings everything I've said in this piece into sharp focus, occurs in the famous videotape of George W Bush receiving the news of the second strike on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. As the enemies of democracy hurl their aviation-fuel-laden thunderbolt at the second tower, their minds intoxicated by a fundamentalist reading of a religious text, the leader of the free world sits in a classroom reading a story with children. If only he'd been reading Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, or Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad, or a genuine fairy tale! That would have been a scene to cheer. It would have illustrated values truly worth fighting to preserve. It would have embodied all the difference between democratic reading and totalitarian reading, between reading that nourishes the heart and the imagination and reading that starves them.

But no. Thanks among other things to his own government's educational policy, the book Bush was reading was one of the most stupefyingly banal and witless things I've ever had the misfortune to see. My Pet Goat (you can find the text easily enough on the internet, and I can't bring myself to quote it) is a drearily functional piece of rubbish designed only to teach phonics. You couldn't read it for pleasure, or for consolation, or for joy, or for wisdom, or for wonder, or for any other human feeling; it is empty, vapid, sterile.

But that was what the president of the United States, and his advisers, thought was worth offering to children. Young people brought up to think that that sort of thing is a real book, and that that sort of activity is what reading is like, will be in no position to see that, for example, it might be worth questioning the US National Park Service's decision to sell in their bookstores a work called Grand Canyon: A Different View, which claims that the canyon was created, like everything else, in six days. But then it may be that the US is already part way to being a theocracy in the sense I mean, one in which the meaning of reading, and of reality itself, is being redefined. In a recent profile of Bush in the New York Times, Ron Suskind recalls: "In the summer of 2002, a senior adviser to Bush told me that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community', which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality'. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works any more,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'"

The democracy of reading exists in the to-and-fro between reader and text, when each is free to engage honestly with the other. The democracy of politics needs the same freedom and honesty in the public realm: freedom from lies and distortions about other candidates, honesty about one's own actions and programmes and sources of information. It's difficult. It's strenuous. The sort of effort it takes was never very common, but it seems to be rarer now than it was. It is quite easy for democracies to forget how to read.

The "My Pet Goat" comment is a bit of a potshot--I wouldn't be surprised at all if the book was chosen by the school, and not by the president. Moreover, American public schools (like schools everywhere) have always presented children with bad books to read, and the number of good children's book has almost certainly increased over the last twenty years. Even so, there's definitely something to Pullman's main point, that "theocracies don't know how to read, and democracies do."

Pullman's essay also points to something that's been bothering me lately. There are days when I think "Why did I go to history graduate school? I should have gone to law school, as I originally planned, so I could be out there fighting now!" (Being a lawyer might also give me an out if today's anti-intellectual trend is taken to an insane extreme...) In the years ahead, however, the struggle for a decent society won't just be fought in polling booths, courtrooms, and legislatures. We'll need to be out there fighting for democratic values in the more mundane sphere of the everyday as well.

Posted by Ed at November 6, 2004 10:57 AM

For an understanding of why Bush was reading that particular book, see this article from the New Yorker...

Posted by: William at November 8, 2004 07:51 PM

As a blogger, what are your thoughts on Podcasting?Mark

Posted by: Mark - The Podcasting Guy at December 1, 2004 02:39 PM
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