How physical reading spaces are vital for keeping children’s imagination alive

Memories that shape us

By Saba Karim Khan

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Published: Thu 28 Apr 2022, 8:43 PM

In my recent book talks, a question that inevitably came up was about childhood and the imagery early memories evoke. Each time, I found myself offering the same reply: “I grew up in a home filled with hand-written letters, books, ghazals and dreams; where a lot would be traded for a creative or spiritually uplifting experience. So, in a strange way, we were misfits because we never really learnt how material things can buy happiness”.

It’s true, I did grow up in a sort of secular-Sufi home, if there is such a thing, and Saturday afternoons were spent at the British Council Library in Karachi. The library, of course, was about books, stacked in white shelves rolling on wheels, overlooking a verdant lawn with vintage trees, where we would buy samosas afterwards and watch our first Charlie Chaplin performance. But the library was so much more: it was about experiencing the first whiffs of freedom, of unleashing the imagination, about ideas and escape, about entertainment and socialising, too. It was where I fan-girled around the world of Enid Blyton at six (long before her stories were labelled politically incorrect by some), immersing in fairytales that refused to leave me; it was a safe space where one could belong, without breaking the bank. In many ways, much like reading, the library was an equaliser.

They say, “Everything changes when we read”, perhaps because reading is a ladder, or a window, to other abilities and occasions. As you climb each rung of the reading ladder, you inch towards literacy, but also towards imagination, picturing what might have been; and therein lies the true potential of stories. Enid Blyton did precisely that to me and once I discovered her world, the imagination was unstoppable: sitting in Karachi’s library, we’d visualise the midnight feast at Malory Towers or the slippery slope and night markets in the Faraway Tree, the leaves rustling in the Enchanted Wood and what the Five Find-Outers might be up to. I was no longer satisfied; I wanted to know more, imagine more, do things differently.

I remember getting flak for reading just about anywhere — at the dining table, in the car, at home time in school; but it was in the library that it struck me what it meant to read stories just for pleasure. In a space surrounded by books and like-minded children and adults, which granted me the freedom to choose what I wanted to read, in the absence of grades and competition and at that time mobile phones, I stumbled upon the power of books. I now realise that was the only way to fall in love with reading; to be allowed to do it without the fear of failure and judgment — and the library enabled just that.

Going to the library turned reading into a social activity for us — forging friendships with librarians, read-alouds which turned books into performances and co-creation, but also a kind of escape. We often think of escapism in derogatory, confused, cowardly terms; it doesn’t have to be. The library, as a place of escapism, offered solace, a slowing down of the mind, body, soul, with wings to transport us elsewhere, even amidst Karachi’s frenzied city life.

But our girls today inhabit a markedly different world from the one I grew up in, and as a parent, I worry about some of these changes. I worry about the speed at which libraries are disappearing and the dearth of reading cafés to take them to. I worry about the first sight that hits you at a bookshop — more toys than books. I worry that our girls may be part of a generation that finds libraries and reading cafés, uncool and wearisome. I worry because I know no matter how avidly they cram phonics or spellings at school, or how much we consolidate learning at home, occupying physical space in a reading room or library opens up different experiences and possibilities.

Around the world, budgetary constraints or simply labeling libraries extinct, are becoming grounds to get rid of them and to stop creating new ones. By doing so, we are shutting down portals that are vital for our children, for their future and well-being. Without places that enable them to meditate and imagine, which offer bandwidth in their over-flowing schedules, we run the risk of producing atomised beings, rather than curious, stimulated children, those who are physically, emotionally, imaginatively alive and equipped to participate in the act of creation.

When Albert Einstein was asked about ways to make children smarter, he unequivocally trusted the value of reading: “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he responded, “read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales.” To his mind, the vision of creativity and the power of books was crystalised. For us, however, libraries, reading and reading spaces, whilst attractive in theory, appear incompatible with our brisk, explosive online lives, where if you’re not constantly busy, you aren’t seen as productive enough. Who has time to while away in a reading café; what’s there to show for it at the end of the hour spent?

With our children, I hope this fashion of jam-packed minds and routines comes to a halt; I hope, instead, that they allow themselves to pause and reflect, sometimes be bored, other times listen and tell stories, to know what it means to speak softly in a reading space, to daydream and for some of those fantasies to eventually take flight. For far too long, we have convinced ourselves that society, its problems, are too sprawling and in our singular capacity, we can’t change much. I hope we can raise a generation where individuals believe they can imagine things differently and that no difference is too small, where they aren’t reduced to products off an assembly line or statistics on a report card. For us to get there, having places to read, to imagine and feel free, is a non-negotiable starting point.

My reading recommendation for children is The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak.

Saba Karim Khan is the author of Skyfall, released by Bloomsbury and works at NYU Abu Dhabi

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