The Power of Books

Mali 6

As a CUSO volunteer, I taught school in Bamako, the capital of Mali. When I traveled to Mali many years later, I was invited to the school I had taught at as a guest speaker for the English as a Second Language students. I would be the “document authentique.”

I visited the grade 11 and grade 12 classes. I promised I would answer any question they asked as long as they used English. The students astounded me. They asked about racism, abortion, women’s rights, our political system, and differences between Canadians and Americans. They were curious about my reasons for being in Mali and about other countries I had visited.

When our Malian friend, Raymond, came to Canada I decided to take him to school with me as guest speaker in my French as a Second Language classes. I explained who he was and told my students that he was an Olympic athlete, coach, and, at that time, an Olympic level referee. I encouraged them to ask any questions they liked. They wanted to know if it was hot in Mali and what he ate. He was gracious with his replies. I decided that their limited language skills were getting in the way and offered to translate. The questions were still banal. Disappointed with the kids, I took Raymond home at noon. There was no point in putting him through more of that.

What bothered me then, and still does, was the great divide between the two groups of students. Some of that may be attributed to age differences. The girls in Mali were seventeen-year-olds and my students fourteen. But I’m not convinced that’s a good enough excuse for their complacency and the superficiality of the questions they asked.

Can I chalk it up then, to the affluence of our society, to the ease with which our every desire is satisfied as contrasted with Malians who grow up facing daily hardship—the hunt for food, for firewood, for water…?

What, if anything, would make a difference for our students? When I ask myself that question, books loom large in my mind as the answer. I grew up in a poor home. We always had enough to eat, but certainly didn’t have extras. A five-cent comic book once in a while was a huge treat: the fat twenty-five cent comic rare and treasured. Books, when I could get my hands on some, were life to me then. They still are.

For me, reading is a deep and satisfying activity. Novels spark my curiosity, teach me about the world, about people—character, motivation, emotions. Books make me think and wonder and ponder.

Is that what’s missing in the youth of today? Engrossed with all the available social media—and not having to worry about their very survival—are they missing deeper meanings and understandings? Would reading books make a difference? I think so. Books do have power—more power than some people would like. Why else would they be banned or burned?

“If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson.

8 comments on “The Power of Books

  1. That is very interesting. It made me think back to when I was teaching 6 Tibetan female students ESL. They asked teh most amazing questions too. They were so thirsty for knowledge. I do believe our society has created complacent children. When I visit elementary schools in Canada to read from my books, the younger children do ask some good questions though. I like to think that my books have some power.

  2. Back in school, we asked our French visitors from Alliance Francais similar questions as did the students in Mali. I remember asking the lady in their midst how she would describe Africa to her friends in France. She smiled broadly, saying “Oh, it’s hot most of the time!”

    Kids of today are mostly influenced by the social media. Someone once told me that reading novels is a “girl’s stuff.” You can imagine how surprised I was.

  3. “are they missing deeper meanings and understandings?”
    They are missing everything deeper. Friendships – cannot be deep when you have thousands on facebook. Relationships – cannot be deep when you’ve had over 100 lovers in 6 months (I’ll be writing about that later). Education – cannot go to deeper levels when you’re sitting as many as 10 A levels. More doesn’t mean better.

    Now I’ve had my morning rant, I’m off to cool down.

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