Toronto, Dec 2012. I’d reached rock bottom and was scraping out a few bucks under the table in a survival job in a forklift parts warehouse. I was barely hanging onto the last thread of dignity that made me feel human and hopeful; The things that’d get me out of this ‘bad patch’. I read and wrote every moment I could — on breaks, in transit, in greasy spoon coffee shops. I’d yet to grab a cuppa whatever swill I could stomach, then ‘power read’ for 20 minutes before heading down the street to work.
Then, one totally dreary winter day, I spied a girl reading a book (printed) in that Great Canadian greasy spoon, Tim Horton’s. I knew what she was clinging to, but as I obediently queued up like a cow heading into the barn, I also caught glimpses of the looks others were giving her. They were the same looks of suspicion I had seen directed at me; the same looks I had seen on the faces of the locals I served in the small town Ontario bar; the same looks one might see directed at witches, lepers, gypsies, heretics and other threats to the social order in days gone by.
Why are people who read and write viewed with suspicion, distrust, and in some extreme instances, hatred?
Just as many villagers cast accusations of witchcraft on those (mostly women) who looked ‘different’ – maybe they were the prettiest in the village; maybe they had blue eyes instead of the predominant brown. Whatever the reason, they didn’t ‘fit the norm’ for that village. That it was so easy to to get rid of them by raising suspicions about the ‘real’ reasons behind their different-ness, it stoked the fires of the witchcraze.
Are readers and writers in league with the Devil?
I recently picked up a copy of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath — definitely one of my favorite ‘defiant adoptee’ films during my ‘End of Men’ period. Would the book be as good?
I hadn’t read any passages since high school, but even that’s a doubtful claim. It was mid-’70s and ‘real’ guys just didn’t read, or even care about school. That was the creed.¹ This was during the time when my parents were divorcing and my Dad was drowning a lost business in vodka. I desperately wanted to be part of the norm, so I can’t say I even read it then.
One passage jumped out as a possible explanation for the suspicion and hatred of readers and writers.
Why would writing and reading might be held in suspicion and in extreme moments, the non-reader or non-writer might be compelled to burn books, writers and readers? One take comes in the opening chapters of The Grapes of Wrath. Tom Joad has arrived at the old homestead, now buried in dust, overgrown with cotton, and the house empty, partially demolished.
Along the way home from prison, first the inquisitive and scared truck driver, the Preacher Casy, and finally Muley Graves ask if his ‘Pa had written to him while in prison. Why hadn’t his ‘Pa written to tell him that the family had been kicked off the land, and was heading to California. Tom could reply that his ‘Pa wasn’t much for writing. However,
“ … I learned to write nice as hell. Birds an’ stuff like that, too; not just word writin’. My ol’ man’ll be sore when he sees me whip out a bird in one stroke. Pa’s gonna be mad when he sees me do that. He don’t like no fancy stuff like that. He don’t even like the word writin’. Kinda scares ‘im, I guess. Ever’ time Pa seen writin’, somebody took somepin away from ‘im.”²
And then, Tom Joad talks about a lifer he knew in prison who read all the time.
“Well, he’s one hell of a bright guy an’ reads law ‘an all stuff like that. Well, I talked to him one time about her, ’cause he reads so much stuff. An’ he says it don’t do no good to read books. Says he’s read evr’thing about prisons now, an’ in the old times; an’ he says she makes less sense now than she did before he starts readin’. .. He says for God’s sake don’t read about her [prisons] because he says for one thing you’ll jus’ get messed up worse, an’ for another you won’t have no respect for the guys that work the gover’ments.”³
In Tom’s Pa’s world, those that could write held something over him — lawyers, landowners, the bank.
Is that it? The masses — ‘The Great Unread’ — distrust readers and writers because they ‘know’ stuff, at least enough not to view the world in black and white, good and evil, us and them?
Maybe the Devil does use knowledge to recruit ‘idle minds’ to wage war on faith and belief in God!
¹ 40 years later, as a parent of 2 boys, I’ve learned that it had less to do with ‘machismo’ of that period, and more to do with the inherent laziness of teachers who tend to favour girls over boys by an overwhelming majority because they’re less burdensome to teach.
² The Grapes of Wrath, 73-74
³ ibid, 75