Never let your children read. Forget about trying to nurture literate, engaged citizens of the world. Rather, look to those 19th-century reactionaries who considered reading as dangerous and subversive in the hands of the wrong people.
For a long time, I was content to live in a house where my encouragement of reading was met with laughter and derision, while the deriders clicked away on their Xbox controllers. Shrugging, I turned away in those happy, antediluvian days to some volume written by some derisible writer, relishing the solitude of my preferred hobby.
That was until the Grand Inquisitor and the Underground Man moved into my house. Now my living space and my mind have been occupied by people who are the creations of someone else’s imagination. It has been horrible.
I’ll get to who the occupiers are in a minute. First, here’s how they got in. One night, in yet another fit of pique about another incomplete homework assignment and another skipped class, I told the person who sleeps in the middle room on the second floor that he was to read a collection of classic short stories, Short Fiction of the Masters. I would, I assured him, monitor his progress through regular inquiries.
Now, this book contains works by Balzac, Hemingway, Chekhov, Flaubert and Dostoyevsky. Heavy stuff. Not only was I being superbly pretentious in my choice of literature, but my pedagogy was excellent. Surely the best way to get someone to enjoy reading is through making it a punishment.
Days passed. Smugly, I finally asked how the reading was going. While keeping his 17-year-old eyes fixed on his computer screen, the person who sleeps in the middle room muttered something about the Grand Inquisitor.
Taken aback, I mentioned that he was from one of the great novels, The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky was Russian, the person from the second floor stated flatly. And there the conversation ended.
Entering the house on another rainy evening, and picking up another message about another missed school day, I confronted the person who sleeps in the middle room. His defence was that he had been up all night reading and re-reading The Grand Inquisitor on the Nature of Man.
Being a bit of an interrogator myself, I asked for evidence. He then began to recite from the piece at length. I soon could picture the bloodless lips of Dostoyevsky’s character directing his moral questioning at me, accusing me of weakly preferring bread to freedom and reminding me of my puny will and my need of an authority to tell me what to do. And the person from the middle room wanted to know if we could go out to buy the Constance Garnett translation of The Brothers Karamazov. (A specific translation)!
If I had been smart, I would have said no and handed him his game controller. But I am not smart. Instead, I earnestly made the mistake of wanting to be a responsible parent – not thinking for a moment that my house would soon be overrun. I got into the car with him and away we went. This couldn’t last, I thought from behind the wheel. Surely NHL 12 would come to my rescue.
It didn’t. Things got worse, far worse. Within a couple of weeks, my son took some birthday money and bought a copy of Notes From Underground. Now the Underground Man moved in, confronting me at breakfast with the vanity of all my beliefs and efforts, the ridiculousness of life and the fundamental dishonesty of existence. With my mouth full of porridge, I looked at the person who sleeps in the middle room. Then I felt like phoning his Grade 1 teacher and giving her hell for teaching him to read.
The house has become dangerous to one’s sense of self. Living life with a cast of Dostoyevsky characters puts you on edge. If you’ve never read any of these novels, try to imagine faultless but unrelenting discourse from somebody who won’t shut up and follows you around talking while you try to, say, wash the dishes, do some laundry or pay the bills. These characters grab you by the back of the head and rub your face in your inadequacy and their superiority. They make you feel like the intellectual equivalent of the 98-pound weakling.
Burning the books is an option, I suppose. But evicting fictional characters is difficult. When I wanted the person who sleeps in the middle room to start reading, I was thinking along the lines of Harry Potter, a more congenial houseguest.
Lest you think this is poorly concealed bragging, it is not. I am not proud; I am ashamed. My son’s friendship with Dostoyevsky has been a disaster for any kind of authority I might have wielded. A father wants simply for his house to run in a peaceable and agreeable fashion. The Grand Inquisitor and the Underground Man have subverted that ambition more surely than any radical political program could. Occupy Wall Street all you want, I say, and best of luck. Then let Dostoyevsky occupy your house and watch what happens.
Yearning for my teenage son to return to the frenetic clicking of his digital diversions, I think with trepidation of all that lurks on library and bookstore shelves Sadly, I walk over to his game console, pick up one of his dusty game controllers and wonder what went so horribly wrong.
Mark Harding lives in Toronto.