Where have all the readers gone?

These two books will be joined by a third in Fall 2016...all of them in search of that rare and elusive Reader!

These two books will be joined by a third in Fall 2016…all of them in search of that rare and elusive creature, The Reader!

Count the books in your house – the books in plain sight, not the ones buried in boxes. Then count the number of books you bought.

Finally, count the number of books you actually read last year – books, not magazines, websites or anything else.

If you are like most people, these numbers will graph a steady slide toward personal illiteracy.

I’m old enough to keep buying interesting books, despite a pile that continues to grow. Someday I will find the time to read them.

As an author, I write books I want other people to read, so I also feel compelled to support colleagues and the publishing industry.

As a university and college teacher, however, I am deeply troubled by the inability of my students to read quickly. Given all the money and effort the school system spends on literacy, books should not be foreign objects. Nor should reading be a difficult activity.

My students are assigned about ¼ of the reading I had as an undergraduate. Their protests about how much there is and how long it takes to read it grow every year. Match this to fewer and shorter essays than I used to write – and epically bad essay examinations – and their downward graph toward illiteracy mirrors the downward slide in the number of books sold these days.

It’s not that e-books are taking over, either. People hardly buy books anymore. Even fewer read them. My e-book sales are almost non-existent and I am told this is a common complaint. Canada’s one large book retailing chain stocks as much other stuff as it does books and displays it much more prominently.

Simply put, we are no longer a nation of readers – at least not of more than 1000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.

Academics of course have coined a term for this – apparently we now live in a post-literate society. We communicate in other ways than words. Images (worth a thousand words, remember?) flash across our screens and lure our eyes away from the solidity of a book. We now have the intellectual attention span of squirrels – and it shows.

Yet the irony is palpable. All around the world, education (especially for girls and women) is seen as the key to sustainable development and a better future. Parents sacrifice themselves and their future to pay the school fees for children who often are forced to live at a distance to attend.

Literacy – reading books and writing – are at the centre of this passion for education. Yet here at home our literacy indicators continue to slide. Manitoba sits close to the bottom of the national average and fingers are thus happily pointed at our teachers and our education system.

I suggest the fingers are pointed in the wrong direction. Children learn what they live with more than what they are taught. The same parents who spent hours reading aloud to toddlers are never seen book in hand by their teenagers. If there are bookshelves, they hold other things or dusty artifacts, not a library of books waiting to be read.

When there is dinner table conversation, it is fuelled by Facebook or current events, not by the book someone is reading. We know how to read (and to write), but like physical muscles grown flabby with lack of use, our literary muscles are out of shape.

At school (college or university) and at work, this has a direct effect on performance. Given the limited time for an assignment, any student who can finish the reading quickly has more time left to actually do the work that is graded. A plodding reader is also often a slow writer, so the penalty is multiplied.

Vocabulary is similarly affected. Even the words that are learned by hearing them are misspelled in hilarious ways. (In one recent Facebook example, “gender parity” was spelled “gender parody” instead!) Spell check doesn’t help if brain check is disabled by lack of practice.

At work, employees can’t process what is written as quickly as they should – and write garble that is misunderstood by the people who have to read it. All this wastes time and creates inefficiencies, frustrations and mistakes.

So read, read as though your life depended on it. Read in front of the children. Read on the bus. Read on your work break. Read in the evening instead of surfing the waves of Internet foam.

It will hurt at first, just like any good workout should. But it will make all the difference in the end!

Peter Denton’s sixth book, Live Close to Home, will be ignored in bookstores everywhere in Fall 2016. This column first appeared in the Globe and Mail.

Life in the LEGO-verse

"I'm so glad we were able to connect!"

“I’m so glad we were able to connect!”

Ever since I was a kid, I have enjoyed LEGO (trade mark registered, etc.)

But lately, I have come to wonder if LEGO has changed the way we see the world, or whether LEGO is the result of a change in our worldview.

It all comes down to the words we use. Words shape our thoughts. If we don’t have the right words, we can’t think in certain ways. When we use particular words, they shape the direction in which we think, whether we realize it or not.

I have become sensitized to certain words that seem to be everywhere. They take our thoughts about a better world and instead return us – inexorably — to a world that is increasingly toxic.

No one, no matter how cool the movie or how awesome the song, would believe for a second that we live in a LEGO-verse. Yet over and over we use words to describe relationships and growth that are more easily associated with LEGO blocks than living or growing things. We see all of our systems (social, cultural and ecological) as linear and mechanical, not circular and organic, and are reaping the whirlwind of devastation we have sown as a result.

I have developed the argument at length elsewhere (in Gift Ecology: Reimagining a Sustainable World) that our society has emphasized mechanism over organism. We have turned our experience of nature and each other into something that can be sliced, diced and counted – the “metrical me” living in a material world.

To talk about ourselves in abstraction or separation from natural systems is physically absurd – but we do it all the time. Realizing that there is something wrong with our perspective on life, the universe and everything, we therefore decide it is time to “reconnect with nature.” People will earnestly use this expression, indicating awareness of something being wrong and a desire to …fix it? Rebuild it? Reconnect it? All the while, these same people are usually unaware of the utter absurdity of their language and do not thank me for pointing it out.

Very frostily, I am asked if this is not a good place to start, whether or not I like the words? Isn’t doing something better than doing nothing? Isn’t reconnecting with nature a desirable goal?

And so we are trapped, by our words, in the LEGO-verse. We build relationships, along with communities – not realizing that neither are barns, and certainly not seeing the huge difference between a barn raised by a community and one built to code by a contractor.

We construct, build, connect, and so mire ourselves further in the worldview a sustainable future requires us to escape.

No matter how hard we try to return to an organic view of the universe around and within us, our words get in the way. If you can use those same words to direct someone in the construction of some LEGO artifact, then they don’t fit the curves, resilience and springy-ness of life.

We need to use other words, if we want to think other thoughts. We need to experience relationships, not build friendships. There is good reason and much wisdom behind the aboriginal expressions we would do well to incorporate into our own vision. For me to appreciate the world in which I live, for example, I need to think about “all my relations” not “all my connections.”

After all, social, cultural and ecological systems are not linear. They are a weave of many elements and practices, spiritual and philosophical as well as material, subtle and transient as well as solid and enduring. Caught in the web to which we contribute our own weaving, we can rarely be certain of the outcome of our own actions within a system so complex that no computer system could begin to replicate it, much less understand what it means.

So, if you want to stop the delusion — in your mind and in others — that we live in a linear, mechanical, material world, stop using the words that make such a perspective necessary and inevitable.

Fine yourself a nickel for every time you use the word “connect” when you really mean “relate,” every time you talk about “building” or “constructing” when you mean “growing” or “nurturing.” Donate your fines to a community organization that helps people to grow into a sustainable future.

It will be money well spent. You will feel better and your mind will be clearer (I almost said your brain would work better!).

Your spirit will be nourished as you become more aware, more mindful, of the web of life and community within which you are woven and which you are weaving.

You will live with intention and purpose, as your new words guide your thoughts in creative directions that then give you reasons for doing what your heart tells you needs to be done.

Or, you can keep on using those old words and – like the LEGO characters in the picture above – you can connect with other people instead. You can build a better future, reconstruct society, or reconnect with nature through a more thorough understanding of the building blocks of life.

Your choice – but the words you use indicate the choice you are making and where it leads.

Back Home Again

Early morning, near Keekorok, close to the Tanzanian border

Home is where the heart is. I am back in Kenya for a third time, reflecting as much a decision of the heart as anything the head had to say about it.

I still wear the beaded bracelet that was forced over a large hand onto my wrist sixteen months ago, a physical and sometimes irritating reminder of a promise I made to myself on that first trip to return.

It was early in the morning, sunrise on the Mara, and the feeling I had at sunset the night before (on my 36 hour safari) returned with astonishing power. I looked across the landscape and said to myself, I will be back. Not knowing how or when, there was as much certainty in that feeling as the sun’s trajectory into the morning sky, silhouetting the unique trees of the savannah.

The prairie soulscape of Canada for me had become forever intertwined with its African companion.

As I write this, watching a herd of elephants cross the horizon on a hill and the monkeys playing in the hammock near by, it is just as natural as seeing cats and dogs.

After the hustle of Nairobi’s traffic, the casual intensity of the distant thunderstorm out here, marked by birdcalls I don’t recognize, takes me to another time and place.

With all the complexities of the human psyche, perhaps there is some lingering genetic recall of the place from which all humanity emerged. Yet the sense of one’s African home rediscovered is clichéd, especially for the pasty Europeans whose ancestors ripped native African people out of their homes and cultures for centuries.

And of course the Africa I experience here is almost as manicured as the setting at the United Nations campus in Nairobi (UNON), not reflecting the struggle for survival that is played out across the hillscapes of Maasai-land. Yet even in safari parks and tourist lodges, the underlying primal logic breaks through.

Looking at the tourists that stroll by, shaped from worlds away, I walk instead with the local people, different to casual glance but not in the spirit beneath, though mine is as awkward and hesitant as the Maasai and Swahili words I attempt.

Even the triple handshake seems more familiar now, a rhythm of introduction that brings a complexity of touch and turns strangers into people with possibilities for a relationship. Not everyone wants or accepts that extra maneuver, but some do – and culture and difference are instantly woven into a common humanity.

It is a visit tinged with regret, however, for I only wish I had found her sooner. Africa is a mistress lodged in the moment, whatever ancient past or anxious future. Her passion and vulnerability are expressed by the dynamics of life, woven together into what is, captured in an instant that transcends the crude measures humans make of the passage of time.

As I turn the bracelet on my wrist again, at the risk of defying again whatever gods have something to say about my future, I will be back.