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Blog: About reading

in English 16.3.2018 06:45 | Päivämies-verkkolehti
When, as a little boy, I learnt to read by studying the texts on milk cartons, I could not have imagined the Pandora’s box opened up by that new skill. I am not sure how well young children understand the content they read – as we reflect all our new experiences on things we have previously learnt or internalized – but I can clearly remember some balloons of Donald Duck paperbacks that I only understood when I was older. I guess we develop a sense of humor at a fairly late age, and little kids probably have no idea of the double meanings of words. 
I was a regular customer of Oulu libraries as a child. Often after school I first went to the school library and then did a round of libraries in and around the city center on my bike. I borrowed a pile of comics (and bought some candy if I had money – for comics with candy are absolute bliss) and also some more intellectual material, such as kids’ detective books, Tarzan books, books by Astrid Lindgren, and other children’s fiction. Sometimes I also picked up books that were not so good. Funny enough, I was able at that age to read even horror stories, though I definitely do not like them any more, maybe because the daily news nowadays provide quite enough horror free of charge. 

I soon felt the pull of other kinds of literature, too. When still quite young, I read both Reader’s Digest magazines and abbreviated novels by the same publisher – you know the books bound in brown artificial leather with a picture of Pegasus and four book titles on the spine. Second-hand book stores are full of those books and they sell them cheap. My literary taste was clearly different from my mother’s, but when life seemed particularly boring, I occasionally picked one of her thick romantic novels from the bookshelf and read it. I also liked factual books, especially history, and even encyclopedias.

I have always loved fairy tales. I was lucky in that my parents had invested some of their modest means in a set of story books in dark orange covers. I spent a lot of time by the bookshelf immersed in the stories of the Little Match Girl, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella, and other figures. I still find the Little Match Girl’s cold feet and the stars that turn into candles of a Christmas tree deeply moving. The beautiful colored illustrations added to my enjoyment. We did not know about pokemons or Harry Potter then. I fully entered the spirit of these fascinating, old-fashioned stories and believed that life at its best could be something like that.

When I grew up, I discovered both Finnish and international classics. Many of them gave me emotional jolts similar to those given by fairy tales. My view of the world was still limited and my mind black-and-white, but my emotions ran high, and I was especially touched by patriotic Finnish writers as well as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and other Russian classics. I do not remember how I managed to find my way in the jungle of world literature, but think my teachers in junior and senior secondary school were a big help. They recommended to me some of the most classical classics.

I would like to represent myself as an expert of poetry, but poetry for me is a wasteland. I certainly like to listen to recitals of poetry and may occasionally even read a poem or two. If I remember right, I have written three poems in my life, one of which was published in the spring collection of Oulu primary school pupils when I was on the second grade. So, I am not about to write a publication contract any time soon. But I am interested in the lyrics of hymns and songs, and I have even read some romantic poetry, especially after I have been turned down by a lady. You could say my approach to poetry has been pragmatic.

One should also read the Bible. I must admit that, with the exception of the most familiar stories, I remember very little of the Bible. There was a time when I decided to read through this greatest book of the universe, a small section at a time at bedtime every evening. I was vaguely afraid I might find something frightening in it and felt a bit fearful taking on the job. I remember I sometimes even prayed for understanding. I do not remember how many years it took me to read the Bible, but I finally completed the project. Still, I cannot say I remember much of what I learnt then. 

But I am not afraid of reading the Bible any more. When I prepare for Bible class or the Bible circle I attend with my friends, I read the Bible with a free and curious mind. I still respect the Bible and the holiness of the scriptures. I know no-one can become righteous by just reading the Bible, but I find it helps in the battle against the enemy of souls.

I have begun to wonder if I should read all existing literature. When I was younger, I was not very selective of what I read. Now I often ask my friends about books they would recommend. Once in a book store I was approached by a polite sales clerk who asked what kind of books I was looking for. I told her I was probably an unusual reader, as I was interested in books with no sex and violence, mostly classics. The clerk seemed bewildered and muttered something about not being sure if there was anything. She ended up recommending a book, but when I opened that book, I right away found something I did not want to find. I did not buy it.

I have been annoyed to find that I now read less than I used to. I keep buying second-hand books, but they often just gather dust on my bedside table. Why is it that our daily life has become so hectic? I guess we should give up smart phones and tablets and forget about the Internet for a while. I am sure we could then re-discover the joy of reading and could again enjoy the moments of evening dusk, candle light, warm socks, and a cup of tea with a good book. But even though I no longer devour books with the avidity I used to, I sometimes read aloud for my siblings’ children and my pupils only to find that the old stories still captivate their listeners. The Little Match Girl still stands on the snow-covered street and strikes a match to warm her hands. And the light of the match reflects from the reader’s eyes and warms his mind.

Text: Seppo Tervo
Translation: Sirkka-Liisa Leinonen

You will find the original Finnish blog post here

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