February 03, 2004
Making literacy good enough to eat

Last week I was reminded that I possess a book called A History of Reading, by Alberto Manguel. I possess it but have not yet read it. Like many of the books I buy, this one was remaindered and thus obtained very cheaply, rather than something I deliberately went out to find, and when I got it home I put it on the pile of other such acquisitions and forgot about it. It was only some hazardous looking shelving that made me move it from A to B and while doing that to realise again that I own it. I flicked through it again, much as I must have done in the remainder shop, and it looks very promising.

Looking for something interesting to pass on to you people, and for myself to learn about, I naturally went to the chapter entitled "Learning to Read". In it, on page 71, I found the following delightfully tasty morsel of historical knowledge:

In every literate society, learning to read is something of an initiation, a ritualized passage out of a state of dependency and rudimentary communication. The child learning to read is admitted into the communal memory by way of books, and thereby becomes acquainted with a common past which he or she renews, to a greater or lesser degree, in every reading. In medieval Jewish society, for instance, the ritual of learning to read was explicitly celebrated. On the Feast of Shavuot, when Moses received the Torah from the hands of God, the boy about to be initiated was wrapped in a prayer shawl and taken by his father to the teacher. The teacher sat the boy on his lap and showed him a slate on which were written the Hebrew alphabet, a passage from the Scriptures and the words "May the Torah be your occupation." The teacher read out every word and the child repeated it. Then the slate was covered with honey and the child licked it, thereby bodily assimilating the holy words. Also, biblical verses were written on peeled hard-boiled eggs and on honey cakes, which the child would eat after reading the verses out loud to the teacher.

I used to be scornful of such primitive rituals. But being by nature a lazy person, I have learned a profound respect for the tricks we can all play on each others' – and on our own minds – to get us to remember things, and concentrate on things, and generally to apply ourselves to things. The mind thinks symbolically and metaphorically. So, devise a metaphor to get your point across to it. Leaders of armies know this. Priests most definitely know it. And so do good teachers, I suggest.

Some therapists also know it. Apparently, although I can't recall where I read this, if you are having a recurring nightmare, a way to diminish your chances of suffering from it in the future is to describe it as best you can on a bit of paper, perhaps with a verbal description, perhaps with a picture. Then, set fire to the picture and destroy it. Apparently the brain is, sometimes, satisfied with such subterfuges. Matter attended to, it says. Message received. Fine. On with other things. (And no more nightmares.)

If on the other hand, the image thrown at it is pleasurable and memorable, it makes that connection to, and keeps reminding you of it.

The message here is: reading tastes really nice.

Could this little scenario be part of the reason why Jews have tended, over the centuries, to be so well educated? I should definitely guess so.

Also, I think the above description might throw a little light on the question, which I found myself asking yesterday, of why the children in the picture I posted here yesterday (see immediately below) are all so beautifully dressed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:44 PM
Category: HistoryLiteracy