An Exercise in Imagination

During my last year of undergraduate studies in Paris I had to take an English class. Luckily for me, I wasn’t to be taught the if clause for the gazillionth time, when even the second attempt had been unnecessary. We read and discussed (or at least attempted to) various texts in English. The language skills of my colleagues were surprisingly low, so there were only very few participants to the talks. I was one of them. This has lead to one of my happiest professional experiences when, a few years later, I was working for a publishing house in London and I actually got to work with my favourite author during that course: Ben Anderson.

His was the only book that we had to read in its entirety and write a substantial paper on. If you are familiar with him, it will come as no surprise that I am talking about Imagined Communities. I found that his point was so simple, yet so overlooked. Because how else, indeed, would a community be able to exist if its members can’t imagine themselves as being part of one? Ben Anderson also showed how books, among others, had a crucial role to play in the development of this mass imagination exercise.

I am a great lover of books, so his arguments made me happy. It’s really as simple as that. It made me happy to think of books having such power over people and helping them shape their political organisation. Of course, this happened during a time when reading material was scarce, and when reading skills among the masses were even scarcer. But what about today? Do you think that has changed so much because more and more people can read, and because there are so many books somewhere out there?

I don’t think so. I would say that the influence of any given book by itself is small, if not completely insignificant, apart from a few books that have really shaken up the world. But because of the greatness of numbers, I think we need to look at them differently. If we only take the types of messages you find in books and consider those as one hypothetical book (or imaginary book, if you will), we are left with a small library of them. Let me explain why this exercise in imagination.

Ever since my growing concern about the food we eat and what tries to pass (and is mostly accepted) as food, I have become more and more careful about the messages that surround us. Since I don’t watch “proper” TV, I am happily oblivious to all the commercials that have been filmed in the last few years. But I am not at all oblivious to the messages that come to us through other channels. A few months ago I decided I wanted to do a project that has the potential to do some good, even on an incredibly small scale. Given my interests, it will be in book form. When I explained my ideas first to my sister and then to my husband, what came out of my mouth, without having planned for it, was that I wanted to do this project because the cultural setting in which we raise our children needs to change. You have probably heard this before in books and articles, but I am talking about something else. I am not talking about raising children ready to be successful in tomorrow’s jobs; I am talking about raising children ready to survive in a world in crisis. So to me, changing the cultural setting is not about encouraging children’s creativity and problem-solving skills, though I will never argue that those are not important. Changing the cultural setting is more about what we don’t explicitly talk about in books, comics or films; it’s about the things that our children will take as a given, as the background against which the variable things happen: who befriends whom, where and how the characters will play, what they will purchase, what feelings they will experience, what they will say.

Having thought about this all by myself like a big girl, I came across similar ideas in recent books. I have fought the urge to feel stupid that I wasn’t the first one to think it, and have rejoiced in the fact that there are smarter and more accomplished people than I am who could agree with me. The stories that we tell matter. This goes for both children, and adults. And, if you ask me, we need to change the stories that we tell our children.

[…] society is and always has been bound together by collective fictions, no less now than in earlier eras, with values like progress and rationality taking the place once held by religion and superstition.

David Wallace-Wells, “The Uninhabitable Earth”

I am not planning on launching a campaign against fairy tales, though they are full of questionable morals and many others, but I would like to see a change in  the abundance of children’s books our kids get to see and read. Two things bother me more than anything: food and the overabundance of material things. These don’t need to be blatant, they can be as simple as a drawing of a huge pile of presents somewhere behind the characters, while the text doesn’t even mention them; the kids can see and understand the pictures. They can be as simple as including cake in an unnecessary setting. They can be as simple as ending the story with eating ice cream, thus turning the ice-cream-eating into a happy ending in itself.

“And they never went hungry again” was the right story to get us from stage three to stage four of the nutrition transition: from receding famine to abundance. […] We need new ways of thinking about food to help us adjust to the abundance we now find ourselves surrounded by and to start to build a better way of eating.

Bee Wilson, “The Way We Eat Now”

You can see, I hope, how the ending “And then they ate ice cream” is in no way helping us get to a better way of eating. Or of teaching our children anything valuable.

I have started gathering pictures from books I come across where foods that should be consumed as rarely as possible are featured in places where there’s no need for them. And I will start sharing them, because once you put them together, they show a disturbing image of what we value and how little we think of our children. Maybe not consciously, but do we really believe that they can’t be excited about a story, or just enjoy it, unless we culminate it with ice cream eating?

If you now think of these books as an imaginary book that promotes the eating of cake as an ordinary event in day-to-day life, you can see how reading its numerous parts is almost like reading the same book to our children over and over again. The characters will have different names, they will be bunnies or bears, they will say different things, their drawings will be more or less skillfully made, but the constant, background message will be the same. We know through our own experience, and studies have shown it, that we learn through repetition. How many times do you think it takes before children learn to accept treats as a given in daily life?

I will say this again: “The stories we tell matter”. So let’s act like they do! Let’s be aware of what we read to ourselves and to others, and make an effort to send the right message.

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