Friday, 27 March 2015

The Death Of Imagination

Daniel White writes an opinionated article on why reading work from different generations is essential for everyone...

When I was a kid I went to the library a lot, in fact every Saturday. I would be taken into town by my parents and I would come out with 8 books, a mixture of ones I just read and re read again and new ones. The latest Terry Pratchett, Discworld outing, or Dick Frances next equestrian adventure (yes, Steve, I admit I read his stuff as well) As I got older, my appetite changed and I started reading horror and historical novels. I love the Sharpe novels and James Barker was an author I had such a draw to, I would regularly haunt the librarian for when his new work was available. Back in those days, we didn't have DVDs and VHS was such a new invention that there really wasn't much of back catalogue. I was a child born in the 70's but the eighties was my playground and my imagination was being fed by new and old writers alike. My parents loved me reading and believed that a wide cross section of different kinds of books was to be encouraged. They were so right, and I was soon to discover that reading historical opinion from people like Asa Briggs not only challenged my world views but made sense of the world I lived in. I would often disappear for hours into Narnia or spend a happy lunchtime exploring the river bank in the company of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin. For me, reading was a way of life and it expanded my vocabulary as well as stimulated my imagination. Which brings me to the title of this article, why the death of imagination? I have chatted with Steve and Susan for hours as we passionately discussed and debated authors that we loved or hated. Sometimes scarred by over studying books at school or a more positive experience giving life to an author you knew nothing about. All reading is good for the soul as is reading outside of your comfort zone, so not just comics and certainly not just books written this century, writers long since dead need to be looked at. Just because a book was written many decades ago doesn't mean they have nothing to say to us now. But I digress, why the death of imagination? Well, its because we are not reading any more. Generally as a society we have become lazy and prefer to be drip fed what we see, our imaginations begin to stagnate and slowly die because we are not using them. This cannot be allowed to happen and we must blow the dust off that dormant area of our brains if we are not to become puppets of the media corporations who hold our imaginations under lock and key. If that sounds inflammatory or rebellious then good and I am preaching to myself as I too, have neglected my reading. No More!

I studied A Level English Literature at school and also History. I learnt that fiction work can be used as a fantastic historical document to shed light on the events of the past. Look at Charles Dickens collected work, Hard Times and Great Expectations are both wonderful snapshots of Victorian society. With the many work houses and multitudes of the poor being brought into stark contrast with the wealthy minority and ruling elite? Sound familiar? Is is that much different today? Dickens work was a clarion call for change and not easy change as the fortunate do not easily give up their position and the poor just get poorer. Or look at George Orwell's 1984 or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, both describe with nightmarish, visceral imagery a future where State dictates what we think, believe and the standards we uphold. Those that don't tow the accepted party line are marginalised and got rid of, their voices silenced for fear that they will spark rebellion. I believe both Orwell and Huxley, where they alive today, would shake their collected heads and shudder as this society is far worse than anything they could have imagined. Fully functional human beings that dare to dream, create and imagine are a problem as the only confines that are placed on them are those that they place themselves. Reading and reading widely expands our horizons and whets our appetites for tastes that are constantly being created. School teachers and advisers will tell you that they are constantly challenging children to read both fiction and non fiction works, to not just play it safe when they read. Creative Writing is encouraged and children are lauded for designing and lighting their own worlds and filling them with whomever or whatever they can imagine. I love reading the work my children bring home, theirs is an imagination that has not been restrained or tainted by our decrepit society and their wings have not yet been clipped.

Then comes Big School, and my, doesn't it go wrong. You see, whilst I am eternally grateful for my English Teachers they also infected me with a terrible disease. Over analysing of literature, it's the scourge and destroyer of imagination and I am going to explain why. I cannot read Wuthering Heights any more and until very recently, thanks to a brilliant article by Adam from Under A Banner, the name Tennyson made my lip curl and my stomach churn. I spent two very long terms studying the hell out of Wuthering Heights, with its Gothic imagery and the nuances of the narratorial bias. These were worthy skills which I still use today and I am not saying that critical analysis is bad but it can be over used. Tennyson was ruined because my English teacher spent far too long on In Memoriam and not enough time on Tennyson's lighter work. Studying every stanza and every word killed Tennyson for me and more than that, it killed my ability to read for the love of reading. I look back now at a time where I was uncovering so many great writers, both in school and out of it. John Christopher's Tripod books or Arthur Miller's Death of A Salesmen, I was devouring everything I could lay my hands on. Shakespeare was big on my agenda and his wonderful use of word play was something I marvel at to this day, yet so many will not give him a chance because he uses words that are hard to understand. So what if he does? Dictionaries are wonderful for explaining what words mean and Google is your friend! There is nothing like discovering a new word or marvelling at the interplay between characters. You can feel your imagination struggling back into life as well crafted words knit together and spark your synapses back into existence. Read books from a different century and you begin to understand more about yourself and that, actually, things don't ever really change. But you will awaken the desire to read and you will awaken the love of books again.

The other issue I think is that we are totally bone idle. Remember I said I used to go to the library every week? Well now I don't have to as I can download any book I want without leaving my four walls. You would think that this would mean people read more wouldn't you? But actually it seems more of a hindrance, almost as if the journey to the library was some sort of pilgrimage and I was rewarded for the effort and diligence I showed. You can download the complete works of Shakespeare for 99p, and I strongly suggest you do, but there is something almost majestic in holding his work in one weighty tome. This is a man's whole life work, you're holding it in your hand, it represents hours and hours of blood soaked sweat and tears. Of redrafts and spilt ink and, knowing Shakespeare, much profanity. But there it is and it is a work of pure literary art. What? You don't want to read it because you don't understand the words? Oh for heavens sake mankind take an interest! Its not just the beardy, play writey man either. What about Christopher Marlowe and Doctor Faustus, in which Marlowe details a man's struggle with his own humanity and the lengths he will go to, to avoid death. What about Dante's and his Inferno, a horrific and nightmarish but strikingly vibrant detailing of Hell and its occupants. Too highbrow, bloody look anyway, ok well, what about C.S Lewis and his wardrobe, Narnia and one very large lion? What about Ian Fleming's James Bond novels or Leslie Charteris' Saint novels. Actually, this brings me on to my next point.

How rude is it to be familiar with dramatisations on screen and neglect the original, base material? Lord of The Rings, wow you gotta love Peter Jackson haven't you? Yeah, like he wrote it, it was all his idea don't you know! J R Tolkien penned The Lord of The Rings novels back in the 1930-40's and the books were voted Book of the Century. But you don't need to bother reading them now do you, because Peter Jackson made them into a film. Ian Fleming's James Bond books are works of genius and his depiction of Bond is far better than what we see onscreen, yet I would guess that more people are familiar with Sean Connery's portrayal than Fleming's writing itself. I have to confess at this point that I too have made this mistake. I have now bought a copy of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers because I was mortified that I didn't realise the film was based on his novel. Ignorance happens but ignoring novels just because you actually have to put effort in to read is not! Audio books exist in such a wide and varied number of genres that you can still get your book fix if your reading is not something that comes easily. I know plenty of people who have dislexia and are still avid readers, the development of audio and ebooks has really assisted!

I do get it, with regards to TV, you've had a difficult day at work and, from the moment you've got in, the kids are driving you mad and the cat keeps scratching you. I get it, I really do, it's so much easier to just turn on the TV and switch off but at what cost? Especially if you do this night after night, the cost is the death of your imagination because you are watching someone else's imagination at work. Don't let other people do all your imagining, dare to dream, people, dare to dream. Reading is a habit I have got out of and the purpose of this article is to nail my colours to the literary mast. I love reading, I love escaping into a world, led by the hand of the author, reaching out to me from decades past. If you think that older works from centuries long gone by are not relevant than you really need to take a long hard look at yourself. Laziness is not a great trait and neither is ignorance. Yes, you will find books and authors you don't like, I'll tell you something now. I hate Jane Austen, well I hate her work I never knew the woman. Pride and Prejudice sends me to sleep and don't get me started on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. But when you start reading outside of your comfort zone you discover some amazing authors who will totally transform you. Great writers that forged words together like Sauron forged the great ring, writers that will catapult you into worlds you could barely imagine. Writers that will terrify you and writers that will challenge you. Take a punt, go to the library, download something on your kindle you have never heard of. Go back in time and blow the dust off books that were written before even your Grandfather was alive. For goodness sake go and read some Shakespeare, just go and read something. Because if your imagination dies you will become a shadow of the person you could be. Do it now and fall in love with reading again before its too late! You know what I'm worried about though, if you're still reading at this point you probably love books anyway and are nodding sagely in agreement. Otherwise you are shouting at me and telling me that you still love reading and could I please stop generalising. The problem is I don't know how to reach the people that wont even read this article. Any suggestions?

Images from Amazon and Wikipedia

Daniel White is a firm believer in wider reading but also spends his time watching horror films and going to the theatre. He has been known to venture outside but prefers worlds he can imagine. Follow him on Twitter at @ventspleenuk

No comments:

Post a comment