When our children were small we signed them up for conversational French classes, on the basis that learning a language is something that seems almost like breathing when you’re that young. The hope was that having got at least some idea of a second language in a fun way then learning a third, or even a fourth or fifth, would not seem so daunting. This has, amazingly, had some success as a plan, so, Go, Us!
When we moved out of London we needed to find new classes, so we ended up spending term-time Saturdays getting up at some ridiculous hour so our sproglets could spend the morning playing games, singing songs and absorbing French. At the end of every term there was an awards ceremony for all the Saturday classes and extra activities going on at the school which hosted our French lessons, and at pretty much every occasion the headmaster (who had a wonderfully double-barrelled name) would stand up and proclaim, ‘The child who reads, succeeds’. At least, he did until he ran off with the mum of one of the pupils and the school had to rapidly reorganise and institute a rescue plan, but that’s another story.
The point, he would go on to explain, is that a child who reads a lot will academically outperform a child who doesn’t. Now, there may be exceptions to the rule, but I’m struggling to imagine a scenario in which a child who reads voraciously will perform much worse than a child who refuses to cast their eye over so much as the cereal packets in the cupboard to decide which is the one they want for breakfast. Not just academically, but just as a fully functioning person. As humans we need to learn all the time, once we think we know everything about everything it all seems to start going horribly wrong.
A child who reads a lot will almost certainly end up reading a very wide range of things, simply because supply will be limited at some point, and that is good. It’s good to read the classics, but it’s also good to read books with poor plots, poor characterisation, poor ideas but well written, good ideas but badly written. It is all grist to the mill, so long as enough is being read, because it sharpens the critical faculties.
Someone who has read, say, Pride and Prejudice and The Woman in White who then goes on to read FluffyWuffy the Fairy Tale Princess who Doesn’t Clean Her Room (OK, so I may have made that last one up) will compare and contrast. Hmm, they’ll think, don’t think much of this FluffyWuffy character, she’s not nearly so interesting as Lizzie Bennet.
Of course, the trick is to get them to that stage without putting them off entirely, and I have my own theories on how to achieve that, which mainly revolve around being a bookworm yourself.So you have adults and children who read loads and improve their critical faculties. Gosh. How radical.
Anyway, one of the things I discovered as a child was Science Fiction. It opened up whole shelves of extra reading material in the Public Library, which pleased my parents no end because it fended off the dilemma of what to do with me when I ran out of books.
The Space Merchants (by Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth) was published in 1952 and I first read it in the early 80’s, but it’s one of those books that has never left me. I was brought up to never waste things, recycle where possible, and not fall prey to advertising, but it was mainly a self-serving ethos. It came out of a reluctance to pay for anything that could possibly be avoided, partly because my parents had been genuinely short of money when I was born, and partly because they could remember post-war rationing.
The Space Merchants made me think about things in a much wider context – being frugal with the earth’s resources wasn’t something that I could ditch if money ever became more plentiful, it was something to be done always. It’s not too strong to say that it’s influenced almost everything I have done since reading it, and has certainly been a major influence when I’ve had to make key decisions. I was so intrigued that I read Pohl’s autobiography, ‘The Way The Future Was’ and I tracked down an old copy on the internet years later so I could have my own. He hung out with Isaac Asimov, amongst others, which always makes me boggle a little when I think about it.
Frederick Pohl was perhaps not the world’s best writer, but he’s certainly far better than whoever it was who wrote Princess FluffyWuffy. The ideas behind his books are well worth thinking about, even if, in the end, you disagree with them, because that’s the thing about reading. You are presented with an idea, you think about it, and it influences you one way or another. And then you read the next thing, and the next, until the whole lot is sloshing around in your brain together and you turn it into something else entirely that is all you. I strongly suspect Frederick Pohl figured this out a long time ago as he himself was a big fan of SF, setting up and editing fanzines.
Frederick Pohl died last year, on September 2nd, and it was an unexpected shock. I suppose I thought he must have died long ago and not made the news because he’s not that big in the public consciousness. I’m glad he meant enough to someone else out there for the news to have been picked up and spread around the news outlets enough for me to pick up on it.
So, there it is. My brain may have atrophied a trifle but Frederick Pohl is still in there, along with everything else I’ve read and it got me where I wanted to go in terms of studying, so my thanks to him and every other author who helped along the way.