“When I read Rimbaud’s works, the bells went off.” Bob Dylan
Reading is not something that can be measured by a standardized test. Reading is unique, it is universal, and it is cool. Ask Jack Kerouac, if you don’t believe me. From William Blake to Sherman Alexie – It is very hip to be literary.
In her memoir, Just Kids, the iconic rock star Patti Smith speaks fondly of her love of old book stores and states that the 19th Century classical poets Rimbaud and Baudelaire have been keen sources of inspiration in her work.
Bob Dylan, vagabond of cool, was influenced in his writing by such philosophers of literature as Ferlinghetti and Bertolt Brecht.
The 80 year old Dalai Lama, scholar of Buddhist scripture, and Noble Peace Prize recipient, is globally recognized as having a “cool factor”. This highly erudite man can recite arcane Buddhist texts from memory.
Writer, musician, actor, performance artist, painter, and Renaissance Man, David Bowie, was frequently found browsing the famous New York book stores McNally Jackson and The Strand. Bowie felt so passionately about reading that he posted 100 of his favorite books on his website. The list includes such literary works as Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and Juno Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The original rebel without a cause, James Dean, the young man that made motorcycle jackets the uniform of cool, was an avid reader. Knowing how much he loved Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, a close friend chose a quote from the book, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” for Dean’s memorial plaque near the scene of his tragic automobile crash.
©Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos
In Cyrano de Bergerac, the beautiful Rosalind falls in love with the poet, not the handsome pretender – that is the tragedy and truth of this wondrous play. Being well read makes you attractive, interesting, and desirable to the opposite sex. Pretty Cool!
A reader is an explorer, a seeker, a visionary. One on a quest for something deeper, truer, stronger and more meaningful than what modern culture can offer. Readers are not content with status quo. This makes them defacto non conformists-quintessentially cool. They do not measure truth by what is currently popular. Readers are curious, passionate people with hearts full of wonder. They have discovered that books are passageways.
When teenagers are asked “What is cool?” One character trait comes up consistently:
Throughout history an important theme in literature, whether for children or adults, is the importance of standing up for what you believe in, even when you stand alone.
The Oxford dictionary defines “radical” as “essential and fundamental”, Malala Yousatzai, the young radical who wrote I am Malala, one of the coolest young women in the world, speaks out in her autobiography about how she risked her life for the right of every one to be allowed an education, no matter what sex they are born into.
Role models do not necessarily have to be living. Characters, whether in fairy tales or novels (see previous post on To Kill a Mockingbird) have the ability to help people make transformative decisions; have the power to remind us to treat one another with empathy, decency, and without exploitation.
When reading to a child about characters who are strong and honorable, who courageously choose good over evil, who forge their own path and are triumphant, we offer a compass with which to navigate. The enhanced empathy that early readers acquire helps make them leaders, not followers, as they mature. Good books can teach us to be more compassionate and humane, can encourage us to fight for a kinder, wiser world- that is cool.
Even those with aware, informed, open minded, and educated families cannot possibly be exposed to all the ideas and ways of seeing that books can offer. Books are the ultimate autodidactic key to knowledge. In many dystopian novels, the banning of printed material is both a symbol and a warning of not only the loss of freedom, but a certain kind of imprisonment without bars – the imprisonment of only being allowed to think what those in charge allow you to think. To be illiterate is to be suppressed, as Mahala knew well.
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451
Only thorough education, through knowledge (and this is attainable not only through formal schooling – but through the vast stores of historical material both fiction and nonfiction available to all of us in free countries) do we gain the power to accept or reject the status quo, do we gain the strength that allows us to make important changes in this world. Reading is a right and a privilege, and should not be taken lightly. Teachers have an obligation to let their students in on the value of this precious resource, and not to let the loud circus of modern technology drown out the power of a book’s soft whisper in the darkness.
Two junior high school teachers, who with a little creativity, succeeded in getting their students excited about reading:
Read about more teachers who care in David Denby’s Lit Up:
Books (the old fashioned paper kind) are almost the only activity left that doesn’t require technology or specialized equipment. They are also one of the only places you can escape to in which you not only don’t have to spend any money, but won’t be bombarded with advertisements for things you can’t possibly live without.
In a world obsessed with speed, in which people are more often treated as consumers than not, reading requires that you sit down and slow down and it has nothing to sell. Become reflective. Choose your companion for the night, whether it be Holden Caufield, Titania- Queen of Fairies, or Charlotte the spider.
Reading opens up our hearts and minds. We fall in love with characters because of how they think and how they feel, not because of how they look or what they wear. Books express universal feelings, and yet are deeply personal-no one imagines the same pictures when they read. At a time when we are most lonely, books remind us that we are not alone. They teach humbleness, authenticity, connectiveness, and encourage us to dream – all very, very cool traits.
You can never in a lifetime read all the books you want to read. But if you’d like some of the “coolest” to start with, here you go: A link to the 100 best books for children chosen by the NY Public Library:
“If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson