Last Wednesday morning my goddaughter, Elaine, came visiting. Now, I should make it clear that she didn’t come primarily to see me. Circumstances meant that we hadn’t met for almost eighteen months but her e-mail asking if it was all right if she came over very pointedly said that she wanted to come and see The Bears. If you live in this house you really do have to know your place! Well, of course, The Bears were delighted to see her and she entertained them for a couple of hours with tales of what she had been doing in the period since they had last met.
Elaine finished a gap year in the summer with just enough time to wash and repack before going off for her first term at University. She spent that year in a small village in Guyana, sixteen hours by boat from Georgetown, teaching teenagers not that much younger than herself English, Maths and Science. If they were lucky, they had an hour’s electricity a day and all washing had to be done in the local river. It seems that one of the great joys of being home is that she can buy her own underwear. Her mother kept sending out garments that were white – not to be recommended when they have to be washed in murky river water.
With little else to do downtime, or hammock time as it was known, was spent reading, but of course Elaine was limited to what was available in the village and as a result she has come back with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the works of Mills and Boon. For the most part, the books in the school library have been donated by church groups in the US and we could only speculate that they must have bought job lots somewhere and sent them off without checking what they contained because the outcome is that the children have access to almost a complete set of everything those publishers have ever issued. Not, I would have thought, the literature most likely to have teenagers queueing up waiting for the library to open. However, I would be wrong. There has been one rather unexpected benefit. Apparently, the more recent publications are considerably more erotic than they are romantic and in consequence those right at the front of the queue, champing at the bit, library tickets in hand, are the fifteen and sixteen year old boys. There was nothing unusual about finding a small group of lads tittering their way through the more erotic passages, no doubt marvelling at some of the lurid things these peculiar Westerns get up to.
Should I be horrified? Well, of course, I could wish that they had been able to get their hands on what I would consider to be rather better quality literature, but then I have to ask whether they would have been so eager to read the latest Booker winner, or even some decent crime fiction. In fact, part of me wonders if we shouldn’t be putting the same books into our own secondary schools. I mean when was the last time you saw groups of teenage boys that eager to read? Will they go on and become ‘real’ readers? In general, probably not. But there might be one or two for whom reading becomes a necessary habit and if that is the case does it matter how they got there?
For Elaine the outcome has been less satisfactory. While she definitely doesn’t want to see another Mills and Boon ever again, she has got out of the habit of reading anything that makes demands on her, requiring her active participation in the process of creation, and I think this is something that many of us might sympathise with. While I’ve been ill I’ve been avoiding anything that required real concentration on my part and I’m finding it very difficult to break the pattern of one crime novel after another. Not that there’s anything wrong with a good crime novel, but they shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of a reading diet any more than the collected works of Mills and Boon. So, a cry for help. Do you have any ideas as to how Elaine and I can break out of our respective addictions and start to engage more deeply with literature again? All suggestions gratefully received as long as you don’t recommend that we simply swap book lists. If I bought any erotic Mills and Boon into the house The Bears would throw me out. Proper little puritans they are.