20 Sep 2011

Chewing on Books


Chewing on Books
In a culture overflowing with ear-worn copies of Harry Potter and jam-stained editions of Robert Munsch’s works, it’s easy to take books for granted. They’re everywhere—our homes, schools, bookstores, libraries, vast cubes of them at Costco.
With all these books, it’s easy to forget that we learn not just to read, but how to respect and use books. 

There’s a science to how we learn not just to read, but also to use books; an anthropology of books.
All you have to do is to go somewhere with a less developed book culture for this to jump right of the page, so to speak.

When I go on book tours to remote and rural communities in Canada, some of the most striking moments are talking with children for whom books are a novelty.

Several years ago I did a reading in Thompson, Manitoba’s public library as part of a Canada Book Week tour. The kids jostled in, sat cross-legged, smiling and laughing during the reading. Then came the book signings and sale. The librarian shepherded one elementary student up to me, ten dollars clenched in her small hand. She wanted to buy a copy of my book. It was the first book she’d ever bought. I was the first author she’d ever met.

The experience of buying a book and meeting an author are both important parts of book acculturation. Learning that you can access books and that, in seeing yourself reflected in that author, that you have the power and opportunity to write, to self-express, to share your experience-- whatever it might be—of the world.

The most dramatic example of this anthropology of books is in a community like Bunalwenhi, Uganda. A neighbour of mine recently returned from a sixth-month stint starting the small, rural community’s first library.

What she discovered is that filling the bookshelves was the easier part of fostering a book culture. People needed to learn to use books.

Bunalwenhi is primarily an oral culture. Even with mandatory primary school education, most children make it to the sixth grade—including learning the rudiments of reading and writing—without ever holding, let alone owning, a book.

For Bunalwenhi’s children arriving at the library was like going to a foreign land, populated with strange creatures—books. Kids in primary school approached the books as tactile objects. They pulled books from one-another’s hands, ripped them, hit one another with them, folded pages, scribbled in them. All the things that kids do with books, but here generally at a much younger age when they’re first introduced to books and learning how to properly use them, which became a focus for the librarians.

When we give babies books they can chew, or plasticized ones they play with in the bathtub, a watching anthropologist would jot down a note about book acculturation. Later some adult will joyfully read in a warm, bubbly tub; or feel a sense of peace reading the paper while chewing on breakfast toast.

Every time we hold a book, we can be glad that someone taught us not just how to read, but that a book can be ours to read.

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