My Life as a Book
Fifteen seconds after buying my ticket, I was filled with a horrified sense of regret.
I was in Nagoya, Japan for an English teachers’ conference. At a banquet after the day’s sessions, a local expatriate teacher sidled up to our table and asked if a few of us would be interested in joining her for the first night of the latest Harry Potter movie, The Chamber of Secrets.
“Will it be in English?” I asked. Once, while visiting Rome, the lingua originale designation on a poster tricked my wife and I into believing that the movie would be in English, but it turned out that, for Italians (or at least this particular showing), original language somehow meant Italian, not the language in which the movie was recorded; we sat largely mystified through a dubbed version of Shine, starring Geoffrey Rush as the manic pianist David Helfgott.
“Nope,” the teacher assured us. “It will be in English with Japanese subtitles.”
I was still skeptical, thinking it would be sold out.
With all the flourish of a well-practiced magic trick, she triumphantly produced a half-dozen tickets she had pre-purchased for that evening’s opening. I had been reading the series with my two young sons so it seemed a reasonable alternative to bad TV in a small hotel room. I said yes and handed over the appropriate number of yen, but then made the mistake of asking if she had read the novel.
It turned out she was a raging torrent of everything to do with Harry Potter and grabbed me by both ears desperate to drown me in all she knew. It turned out that she subjected her teenage students to reading the books, singing Harry Potter songs, adorned her classroom with Harry Potter posters, rewarded good students with Harry Potter knickknacks, and on and on. She pulled up her sleeve to show me her Harry Potter tattoo.
In the theater, her deep enthusiasm was finally silenced by the start of the movie, although her fingers twitched throughout, each time a hand touched a wand.
She was a woman obsessed.
It left a lasting question about the type of people who live their lives through the books they read: science fiction readers who continually glance toward the stars, detective story readers who see murder in every room, fantasy readers who imagine a walk down a strange street will find them happily marooned in another world. Each year, parents and teachers fuel these obsessions by inculcating young children into the pleasures of World Book Day.
World Book Day, now organized by UNESCO, has its origins in a 1923 celebration in Catalonia, Spain organized as a promotional activity by booksellers. It was also a associated with promoting copyright laws and the date has been set in memory of the death of author of Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes (April 24) and, more recently, the death of William Shakespeare (April 23). Although Shakespeare’s plays weren’t published during his lifetime, a book of his sonnets came out in 1609, seven years before his death.
For many kids, the highlight of World Book Day is dressing up as one’s favorite book, or favorite character from a book.
If you were a book, which book would you be?
On the small island where I live, I came closest to my own obsession one summer by organizing What if everyone on Bowen Island read the same book? The idea of a mass, organized reading of a single novel was started in 1998, by Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl. Her success in getting thousands of Seattleites to read the same book has since spread to more than 250 cities. Many countries nominate a book for the nation to read.
We chose Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which he wrote in 1882, after seeing his stepson draw an imaginary pirate’s map. Stephenson said, "If this don't fetch the kids, why, they have gone rotten since my day!"
The rip-roaring adventure became Stevenson’s first major success and has remained popular ever since, partly because it’s available as simplified readers, illustrated versions, audio books, a Braille version and, since 1934, at least nine movie adaptations, including a Muppets version and the 2002 science fiction animation, Treasure Planet. On Bowen, we had film screenings, a pirate-themed sports day, a parade for the annual summer festival, and got book clubs and each of the 262 students at our elementary school to read the book.
What’s the point?
Focusing on any book is really just a way of encouraging the most central of learning skills: reading. Reading is the skill that turns young students into lifelong learners and, eventually, informed citizens. Reading and re-reading books and associated materials are about building depth, the equivalent of the doctoral student’s aim of knowing more and more about less and less.
Will dressing up as a pirate help?
Yes. The most important thing parents and teachers do for children is to make learning memorable. You don’t have to be a wizard to spread enchantment.