The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Take Your Vitamins but Don’t Read About Sex

Posted on: December 4, 2006

Dan Green wrote an excellent post, asserting that books are not a higher form of nutrition merely because…they are books.

I certainly agree with Steve in regarding skeptically the notion that reading just anything is, ipso facto, a superior use of one’s time. There’s nothing inherent in the act of confronting words on a page (or a screen) that makes it a more worthwhile focus of attention than, say, watching movies or tv. (And most people who make the “at least they’re reading” argument are presumably hoping to wean people away from the modern visual media.) Some films and television shows are indeed better uses of one’s time than most books. I’d surely recommend that anyone looking for an hour’s worth of non-trivial entertainment watch House before picking up something at random from the New Fiction section at Border’s.

I was one of those reluctant, uncomfortable supporters of the “At least they’re reading” school. Reluctant and uncomfortable because privately I thought it was crock, but did not say so in fear of being unnecessarily elitist. A good film is in every way a superior choice to a bad novel. Merely because something is visual does not mean that is inherently less intellectually stimulating.

Another reason I was uncomfortable is because the Vitamin school is by nature invested in the “Reading is Good For You And Will Make You a Better Person” ideal. It is not something I would vigorously oppose but I do disdain this notion because it ignores the aesthetic pleasures and merits to literature. It ignores the art and focuses on utility. It also tends to analyse literature in a social and political context and presents the book subservient to them. There is nothing that can more potently turn me off from a book than a jacket copy that waxes on and on about how “important” a book is, the setting so politically significant, shaped the lives of a nation blah blah de blah blah. I instinctively avoid novels about slavery, or set during some war (WW II being everyone’s favourite). If I want a book to learn about those things I’ll browse some academic presses’ catalogue, thank you.

Matthew Cheney of The Mumpsimus wrote an eloquent article on What is Appropriate in the latest Quarterly Conversation.

But this group of us coming to consensus in the pleasant room in the old building, and this larger, nebulous group of us, the responsible citizens of the country, the adults–we apparently do not want students to think that sex can be central to an understanding of what it means to be human. For many of us, sex is something not spoken of, something that isn’t proper to present to teens, and yet twentysomethings are somehow supposed to understand and deal with it all responsibly, tastefully, knowledgeably. Such a feeling is not just delusional, it’s puritanical, and it masks sexist and heterosexist assumptions about procreation being the be-all and end-all of sexual activity, the only truly appropriate sort of sex.

In Jamaica the books we are assigned to read in high school are not decided by individual schools, but by the Caribbean Examination Council (and in sixth form by Cambridge). We are then examined on them in grade 11 and at the end of *sixth form. The most that teachers can do, I imagine, is select which books from the list they will use in classrooms. Seeing as most if not all of the English -Speaking Caribbean countries are conservatively Christian I cannot imagine the examiners at CXC headquarters even having these kind of discussions. A sexual act described in a book? A blowjob (an act still publicly derided in Jamaica)? A threesome? Bwahahahahahahaha.

*The British A-level curriculum changed in the year after me, so the way things are done in the AS system may be different. Additionally, more schools have been changing to the CAPE curriculum, the Caribbean equivalent to the A-levels.


1 Response to "Take Your Vitamins but Don’t Read About Sex"

I’d never really though about my utilitarian assumption. I used to teach youngsters and often would use this very reason to convince them to read. Now I know why it didn’t work and that when I began focusing on reading as pleasure, reading scores jumped.

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