- When you give someone a book or make one available to him or her, you are gifting that person a whole world
- Literature and morals cannot be separated– no matter how iconoclastic the work may be, from each one’s perspective
Extracts from the Keynote Address by Madhubhashini Disanayaka Ratnayake, Senior Lecturer, Department of English Language Teaching, University of Sri Jayewardenepura at the National Conference on Library and Information Science held on 28 June 2018.
The Vitality of Imagination
Thank you for giving me a chance today to address you – the Keepers of Magic. Keepers of Magic. Why do I call librarians that?
Because I believe that by being the keepers and guardians of books, you actually are the protectors of one of the best kinds of power – the power of knowledge and literature. In short, the power of books.When you give someone a book or make one available to him or her, you are gifting that person a whole world. Especially when that someone is a child – when there is time to impact his or her personality, to affect what the man or woman the child would become one day. When you give a child a book, or when you teach a child to read and appreciate a book, you are giving him or her the key to a whole new universe. There can be no greater gift than that, except perhaps, love.
Let’s see why this is so. People, we tend to forget, are animals just like all other life on this planet. We eat, sleep, defecate, reproduce and die, more or less in the same trajectory as all other beings. But what makes us different? What made us build civilizations, invent machines to make life easy, have a way of life probably not dreamt of by any other animal? Perhaps because we have one thing that they don’t: imagination.
It was imagination that made the first human visualize that things could be different – that made him or her create the wheel. It is imagination first, that made the brain know what to engage itself on. It was imagination that made it possible to have a world in which humans became far superior to the rest of the beings on earth, at least in comfort levels and manipulation of the earth’s resources.
So should we stop now? Should we sit on our laurels and think we have put men on the moon, we have instant communication with probably more than half the population of the planet through the internet, we have unprecedented levels of life expectancy and luxury. Is imagination necessary anymore?
I say, yes. Imagination is needed now more than ever. We need imagination to see what we are doing to the earth whose resources we have so excellently and efficiently harvested. We need imagination to see how the people on whom the searchlight of mass media does not shine, live - to imagine the gigantic proportions of poverty, crimes of war, sorrow and sickness that exist but we are not allowed to see most of the time, so that the powers that be, can continue to be in power. That is, a few can be in comfort using most of the world’s resources, at the expense of billions of others, while the rest of the world – that is us - is blinded by the lack of imagination and do nothing.
The Danger of Books
We need to be more knowledgeable as to what is happening. What helps us know? The mass media is tightly controlled by the corporations that own it; education is controlled by the governments that have a very clear political agenda it needs the young generation to follow if those governments are to survive; social media – as exemplified by the recent debacle of Facebook and its getting-increasingly-wealthy millionaire CEO, is a machine that controls the way people think.
Where do we turn? Where would an alternate discourse be found?
The answer is – books. Literature, specifically. For the issue is, at heart, morals. And literature and morals cannot be separated– no matter how iconoclastic the work may be, from each one’s perspective. Martha Nussbaum says in her essay, “Literature and Ethical Theory: Allies or Adversaries?” that novels of the type she analyses should be a big part of the education of citizens and public servants: for they both represent and cultivate moral activities of high value, activities that are too often simplified or debased by the pressures of a type of formal theorizing in economics or social policy . They preserve a sense of the humane spaciousness of the ethical life, and the plurality of the distinct ends it contains. Such ideas are fragile, in a time when the lure of sciences and pseudo-sciences makes ever more of our gifted young citizens turn towards theories that, while elegant, simplify and reduce human life. (14)
Of course, this also makes the printed word dangerous. Its danger was clearly perceived right at the dawn of printing, when the printing presses were invented in the fifteenth century and the first Bibles began to be printed. The bible getting into the hands of the common people – when it had so far been interpreted by the clergy – was the death knell of the absolute power of the Church and it heralded the end of the Dark Ages. The first interpreters of the Bible into English were burnt at stake for blasphemy. They had to die for the cost of getting books that anyone could read to the hands of ‘common’ people. Such are the danger and power of books.
Because, even though books too cannot escape the clutches of Capitalism in the sense that the major book publishers are corporations for profit, there is still a chance for a small press to publish writers who resist dominant discourses. Chomsky, the most scathing critic of American foreign policy, is still published in the West, and his books are available for sale and widely read, even though he may not be promoted in the media. Arundathi Roy, who does the same for India as well as the USA, is still available in print. Writers can also self-publish if they wish. They can upload whole books on the web without much financial cost, as a final resort. No matter what the form – they are still books.
As an aside, I must say that, sometimes, of course, as in the case of Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses, there is a definite price to be paid when you write against powerful discourses, but the role of writers is not my subject here today. My focus is on what content of value to leave with those who collect books and make it available to the public, free of charge.
What I want you to understand, therefore, is that books are about the only thing is existence right now that can come to us unmediated by the ideology of those in power who would do anything to hang on to that power. You are guardians of such precious things, as librarians. It should not be a job - it should be a calling. There is sacredness in it. Remember that.
Distancing Reading from Life – A Safety Measure?
There is a deep sadness I feel when I realize how much our education system – be it primary, secondary or tertiary – has disassociated books and the love of reading from learning. Yes, there are text books – but that is only to get students gather facts and know enough to pass exams. And yes, that’s important too – as any medical, engineering or law student will tell you. My appeal is to reading books beyond the syllabus – for the joy of the pursuit of knowledge. Reading because you have to read and reading because you want to read are not the same action – in that difference is a crucial factor that links to the personality of the reader, decides the power that he or she would eventually wield.
And this power is not insignificant. I sometimes wonder if that it is exactly why all governments across the world, do not seem to worry about people moving away from reading – that together with mass media, they are actually encouraging people to not think, not be critically aware, which is part and parcel of them not reading. Because reading is – and always has been – a dangerous activity if you need a society that listens to you and obeys without protest.
Perhaps there is a reason that the world is being lulled into complacency by the entertainment of mass media, which are finally controlled by governments and private companies that depend very much on the obedience of the masses to survive. Complacency is a dangerous emotion – it makes you believe that there is nothing that needs to get done to make the world better – that “God is in Heaven and/ All is right with the world”. To show why is this so, let me quote Carol Becker from the introduction to her book “The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society and Responsibility”:
But why would art need to present reality as a problem? Lukacs speculates that “art becomes problematic precisely because reality has become non-problematic”. The more that is hidden and suppressed, the more simplistic the representation of daily life, the more one dimensional and caught in the dominant ideology the society is, the more art must reveal. (xiii)
In writing books that defy conformity and in fact, in even choosing such books that stand for integrity and truth – in whatever way the writer and the selector see it – you stand opposed to power and you might likely
encounter anger and even persecution. I mention that here because I believe that it is better that you know that and do it consciously. Again, to quote Becker:
Art refuses to be easy. But as it posits the often contradictory nature of what exists around us, it appears less and less familiar to those untrained to read the complexity they in fact live in. Art may be focussed directly on the issues of daily life, but, because it seeks to reveal contradictions and not obfuscate them, art works which should spark a shock of recognition and effect catharsis actually appears alien and deliberately difficult. Art easily becomes the object of rage and confrontation. (xiii)
However, it is important, I believe, whatever the repercussions, that you, as librarians, select books that do not always confirm to the official ideologies given to you to follow. You are within a system, true, but you are dealing with things that are known for questioning any system – so do make a case for selecting books with different ideologies and viewpoints on the basis of improving the critical faculty of readers. Whatever your own personal beliefs may be, choose books that might question all given ‘sanctioned’ knowledge and belief systems. Our country has seen and suffered the results of not questioning orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy is politics and politics has always had a role to play in literature. I discussed earlier that literature is at heart, moral. How did politics get in there? Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize-winning writer calls the inclusion of politics in literature along with morals – “a kinky cultural affair”, in her essay, “Three in a Bed: Fiction, Morals and Politics”. Her metaphor to illustrate this is so flawlessly and insightfully written that I will give it in full here:
Morals are the husband/wife of fiction. And politics? Politics somehow followed morals in, picking the lock and immobilizing the alarm system. At first it was in the dark, perhaps, and fiction thought that the embrace of politics was that of morals, didn’t know the difference. . . And this is understandable. Morals and politics have a family connection. Politics’ ancestry is morality – way back, and generally accepted as forgotten. The resemblance is faded. In the light of morning, if fiction accepts the third presence within the sheets it is soon in full cognisance of who and what politics is. . . From this kinky situation came two offspring, Conformity and Commitment. And you will know who fathered whom. (4 – 5)
We need to do our part in developing commitment to a just cause and questioning conformity, for conformity can and does excuse appalling injustice should it suit the powers that put this particular offspring in a place of unquestioned authority in the first place. We can play a role in getting at least the younger generation more critically engaged in questioning all systems of knowledge. This is best done through books and reading, especially reading outside the prescribed texts.
That is why I think we need to distinguish between people who read because they have to and those who read because they want to. The power to change the world for the better lies with the second category – and as librarians I think it is your job to help society move towards being the second kind of reader. In that way, you can be the most important change makers we need today.