Thursday, 6 October 2016

Finding something to read

Between the haze of end of term madness, a second birthday party to plan, an old dog put to sleep forever, relentless rain and unexpected cold finally breaking the dry season and months of storing bathwater in buckets, student protests and futures hanging tenuous and hesitant.  I feel adrift. Just randomly moving. No real sense of purpose.  No roots to my days. Too fragmented to pick up anything and read it.

Rebecca Solnit on books (found via brainpickings):
"The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities, a children’s and then an adult’s novel a day for many years, seven books a week or so, gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library."

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Just one more word

The nightly bedtime story ritual at the moment goes something like this:

Me: "Okay, that's the end of the chapter. We'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what happens."
The kid: "Ohhhh, don't, don't, no, no!"
Me: "No really, it's the end. You agreed just one chapter, remember?"
The kid: "Noooo! PLEASE just one more story. PLEASE!" (Looks hurt, as if I'm an abusive parent.)
Me: "No, we agreed we would finish at the end of the chapter." (Feels like an abusive parent)
The kid (distraught, on the verge of tears): "PLEASE Mama, just one more WORD!"
Me: "A word is very short. It won't help."
The kid: "Please!"
Me: "Okay." (reads one more word)
The kid (wailing): "Noooo!"
Me: "That was one word."
The kid (looks greatly hurt and disappointed): "Fine! I just won't give you any more goodnight kisses then!"

Sunday, 21 August 2016


It's so scarce. It slips away too easily. Before I know it, it has disappeared. I feel drained of it when all the chores are done, the needs met. I watch the day's dust settle, wondering what impressions remain that I can hold on to. Wondering if the only measurement is in well-worn routines that dig their trenches into our days. What routes has time left on me?

I wonder where it goes. What's happened to it. How we got to now, from then. How the little one suddenly turned into a running-about toddler, how the kid slipped into this wispy, wise girl with laughs and such earnest eyes. How I became a mother to them. And always, always how it is that I deserve their laughter, their outstretched arms and squeezes, their love. 

I know that years from now that taut rope of time will slacken again. I'll feel it ease up. I'll catch my breath. And I'll look back at this time of chaos, of exhaustion, of work, of never-ending demands and I'll smile because there, etched into me, will be the sounds of two giggling half-undressed girls running around the house avoiding bath-time, their joy and exuberance infectious despite my desperation to make bed-time happen. I'll still feel chubby little arms and legs wrapped tightly around me when there are tears and sobs or feel the kid's hand slipping quietly into mine as we go about errands. I'll see them when they're sleeping as I go and check on them before bed, all soft cheeks and gentle breath, their smallness and vulnerability so present in the glow of bedside lamps.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Scenes of everyday ordinariness

Weather that can't quite make up its mind. A chilly wind. Patches of sunlight. One kid crafting colourful paper garlands with buttons. A dusting of paper snippets and glitter under the table where she works. One basket of freshly-brought in laundry. One old dog lying on the mat, paws twitching. Some forgotten bits of stolen fruit left scattered on the back lawn after a visit from a troupe of vervet monkeys. A pot of soup prepared early, cooking on the stove. One little one asleep in her cot. Some half-forgotten games left scattered around the house. One laptop accusingly open and unattended. 

This is how the hours of the day are tallied up. 

How one more day slips by.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Devouring books

It's holiday time.

Days loosen up a bit. There's suddenly more space. There's time to read, not just in the usual bite-sized chunks of busy work days, but time to really devour books. That's how I've always viewed the holidays: a decadent, perhaps greedy, opportunity to consume as many books as I can.

In a very interesting article on the relationship between food metaphors and reading, Louise Adams explores the question of whether devouring books is a sign of superficiality in the reader. She states:
"This metaphor, however, hasn't always seemed so benign. Two hundred years ago, describing someone as 'devouring' a book would have been an act of moral censure. The long, turbulent relationship between reading and eating is invisible to modern eyes, yet in our media-soaked culture, it is more pertinent than ever. The unexamined language of 'devouring' idealises one kind of reading at the expense of others, leaving readers impoverished."
History has shown how different types of texts and different ways of reading were not all seen as equal. From Renaissance scholars like Francis Bacon, who stated that "some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed" to 18th century writers who distinguished between appetite (connecting reading with the physicality of the body) and taste (which connected reading to the mind). Coming out of this background then, devouring a book would appear to be crude and vulgar. The speed associated with devouring a book would also have been seen to lessen the nourishment gained from the text.

These ideas have not been completely sustained in the modern world, where speed is an essential quality of survival. 'Devouring' has come to denote enjoyment and fast-paced, popular consumption. However, many of these ideas are relevant today, particularly because our need to 'devour' literature quickly means we often sacrifice time for slower reflection. (As I've argued here).

When I think of the word 'devouring' in relation to books, my associations are overwhelmingly positive. I see it as good, as it shows that books are being read and this is a point that Adams also makes in assessing where 'devouring books' leaves us today:
"This defensiveness about popular reading now coincides with another phenomenon: the fear that reading might lose its cultural potency completely. This is why the language of reading-as-devouring is rehabilitated, with its unprecedented positive spin. 'Devouring' is reclaimed because, at its base, it signifies interest. And in a world where Facebook, WhatsApp and Netflix compete for our attention, any interest in good old-fashioned reading is encouraged at all costs."
I guess the point being made is that reading cannot be seen as one homogeneous activity, but rather as something that takes on diverse forms and functions depending on context and on the different times in our lives. As with food, I suppose, we sometimes snack or binge or savour.

What Adams suggests is this:
"The language of digestion encourages slowed-down reading habits (along Slow Food lines). It reminds us to be more attentive to the subtle ways in which texts have been put together by their creators - to think before just bingeing upon pages."

Monday, 13 June 2016

Another Monday morning

I climb out of bed, senses blunted by the winter darkness. There's just a hint of day in the pale cut-outs of the windows but it still feels like night. I pick the little one up out of her cot and we stumble through to the kitchen. Automatically I switch on the kettle for tea, still trying to regain my senses. I give her her milk while I sit down for a moment with my warm mug. Just a brief pause before another day fully claims us.

I can't believe we're in the middle of June already. When did that happen?

Sunday, 8 May 2016

In search of a reading culture

Image from here

It's often struck me that books are not part of the fabric of everyday life in South Africa. You're unlikely to see books occupying people as they wait in queues or for taxis or snuck under the tables during lectures or resting on restaurant tables. Phones on the other hand, are everywhere, all levels of society equally obsessed and constantly connected. On a functional level, magazines and newspapers are read, but it is not often that one sees someone lost in a book for the pure, simple enjoyment and escape it offers.

Reading for pleasure is just not a priority, both in homes and in the classroom. It gets drowned out by more desperate, immediate things like focusing on the mechanical ability to read rather than wanting to read for enjoyment. Most homes are not filled with books and sadly, the same can be said for most schools too (read an old post about this here). As a result the culture of reading doesn't develop, which has far reaching implications for education. In a paper on implementing a communal reading project at the University of Johannesburg, Janse Van Vuuren describes the typical first year student:
"A high percentage of these learners are from very poor environments where buying books is not an option with the result that they grew up without the benefit of access to books. Many of these young people who are currently enrolled at universities are battling to overcome the disadvantage of growing up without books and an established reading culture. Academic staff at South African universities increasingly comments on the fact that students lack sound reading and writing skills."
That culture is so important, but not acknowledged. Students wonder why bother to read the book when one can just as well watch the movie, missing the point entirely. And so the cycle continues because books are so absent, so missing; considered relics that belong into some other world and have no relevance for the rhythms of daily life. So I was incredibly happy when I came across this heartwarming story of, Philani Dladla,  a homeless man who sells books on the streets of Johannesburg to make a living. On my average drive to work, each time I stop at an intersection I get offered phone chargers, seasonal fruit, plastic coat hangers, and outstretched hands cupped around the empty nothingness of desperation. I am even offered the opportunity to have my windscreen cleaned for some loose change while I wait for the green light. Depending on where you drive in town, you can probably buy anything through your car window.

But books are absent from that picture.

They're not part of the economics of survival. They're not a feature of the vibrant informal pavement trade. Yet, here is the story of a man who lives hand-to-mouth, who takes his stack of books to grubby city intersections around Johannesburg and peddles reviews and books through car windows. A simple act of survival with stories as his tools, that suddenly becomes so much more...


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