Monday, July 7, 2008


We readers of books are few and far between, not just in Turkey, but increasingly in the US. A look in a Borders or a Barnes & Noble will tell you this. For Christmas I got a gift certificate for one of these (I can't remember which, as I can't tell them apart except for perhaps their color schemes), and I had a terrible time finding anything I might want to read, or that I hadn't already read. Books with pictures are big there, and coffee table books, how-to books, self help books, and spiritual books, but there is very little by way of literary fiction or meaningful non-fiction. Plenty of spy novels and bodice rippers though. At the moment (I'm back in America now), we have a particularly difficult relative visiting. She's a lot of baggage and we deal with her as best as we can, for my mother's sake. After a particularly trying evening, I whispered to my dad the rather cruel fact that this woman doesn't really have any redeeming qualities. Then, despite everything, I had to take this statement back. This relative is in the minority of Americans who reads books, proper books. She's reading one right now. It's not Faulkner or anything, but it's not a bodice-ripper either.

In Turkish films, foreigners are often (somewhat comically) portrayed alone in a cafe reading, as though no one can quite figure out this bizarre foreign behavior (though is it reading or being alone they can't figure out? Turks don't seem big on either one). Illiteracy in Turkey is high (I'm too lazy to look up the numbers and it varies wildly by region and gender, according to this), and in general, it's not really a 'reading' culture. This isn't meant exactly negatively. Turkey is just more of an oral culture, where the written word doesn't play as big of a big role as it does in Western countries. As a small example, I think I've only seen a fellow shopper with a list in the grocery store once. I think it's interesting though, to see where one skill is less used, another is more emphasized. In general, Turks are way better at memorizing things than Americans are. Students impressed me with their memorized oral presentations. Sometimes the presentations were pretty good, where it was obvious the student knew what he or she was talking about. Other times, a student would have memorized an entire ten-minute presentation of text cut-pasted from the Internet of which he or she understood next to nothing. This didn't bode well for learning English or for their grades, but it absolutely astounded me how these kids could memorize this much of something which amounted to nonsense for them. I suppose this came in handy for them in reciting the Koran in Arabic. Finding a clever way to use these memorization skills to actually help them learn English was something I never quite got around to while I was teaching, but there must be a way.

Memorization is a skill that Americans are losing. Those of my parents' generation had to memorize poetry or Shakespeare, which they can still recite to this day. Even my high school still relied on somewhat old-fashioned and traditional approaches to teaching literature, so I also memorized bits here and there, though nothing like what my predecessors had to do. In America though, people are reading less and less without having other skills to make up for it. One thing that never fails to surprise me here (and something I manage to conveniently forget while I'm away) is many Americans' seeming pride in their ignorance, and their fierce determination to avoid having knowledge of any kind foisted upon them. It's like some people actually get personally offended by people who know things, or who read more in the newspaper besides the sports stats and celebrity gossip. In Turkey, uneducated people often strike me as a little ashamed of their ignorance, and are somewhat deferent towards people they perceive as learned. In America a lot of people are, as a friend of mine once said, "Ign'ant and lovin' it." This same friend was recently confronted with an adult American student who got belligerent about his name (an easily pronounceable Norwegian variation of a common English name). When he told her where his family and name come from, she huffily responded, "That means nothing to me."

And remember, people like this vote, though Americans are notoriously lackluster in that department as well. But I'd say the Bush administration is a symptom of Americans' willful ignorance, rather than the cause.

I have this really cool friend who passes through Turkey a few times a year, and has been doing so since the early 90s. He's of my father's generation, and like me, he's a reader. When you live in a foreign country and you read a lot, books in English become one of the most valuable things you can find. Sure, they can be had in Istanbul, but they're expensive. It's an extravagant cost I'm always willing to eat, but my appetite for books exceeds some people's monthly incomes, and shrinking weight limits for baggage make it hard to haul enough books to tide me over until my next trip home. My friend has the same problem, so whenever we meet up, we swap a pile of books. I'm always happy to let a book go once I've read it. They don't serve any decorative purpose in my house. The shelves get so full they just start to be a hazard for the little one, and the books are in danger of getting abused and nibbled at.

It always feels a little funny, handing our sacks of books across the table once our coffee is finished and we're waiting for the bill. I feel a little like a secret agent or a drug dealer. I last met my friend a couple of weeks ago in Sultanahmet. When we swapped the books, the restaurant manager, still bleary-eyed from being up the night before for the European cup quarter-finals, came up and said in jolly Sultanahmet English, "School!" My friend and I must have looked a little confused because the waiter clarified. "Books! Books! School!" He then asked in Turkish what we could possibly be doing with so many books, as though that much reading material was somehow suspicious.

I look forward to these books swaps every few months (though admittedly it's been longer than that with the birth of LE). I like that my friend, on his way from Saudi Arabia to Bulgaria, takes the trouble during his 24-hour Istanbul stop to meet up, discuss teaching and politics and whatever else under the sun, and trade books.

We bookworms of the world are few and far between, and we have to stick together.


siobhan said...

I've just finished a book which I recommend. I bought it at DnR, where I'm sometimes forced to buy books for lack of reading material. Occasionally, whilst I gaze at the shelves in amazement at their total lack of system and conclude from the selection that orders must be made in a totally random way too, I find a gem. The book is Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. It's about a cliquey high-school group and the mysterious suicide of their teacher. It is reminiscent of The Secret History. It is narrated by one of the students, sort of like an academic paper. There are certain unanswered questions by the end of a book and it finishes with an exam. I thought it was such an original approach to narration.

Stranger said...

Sounds brilliant! Go ahead and pass it along to someone there, and I'll pick up a copy here.

I know what you mean about DNR and all the other purveyors of foreign reading material (with the exception of Pandora and Robinson Crusoe, though perhaps part of their expense is for easy searching). It's the same for CDs. For awhile, it seemed like things were organized by first name rather than last, or that things that start with 'A' or 'the' are under 'A' and 'T,' but that's not even a reliable system anymore...

Steph said...

:-) I think you are right but you'd think Turkish people just never stop reading considering how many of them answer 'read a book' to the the level placement test question 'What do you like doing in your free time?' Its right up there with 'watch tv' and 'I don't have free time'....
I don't know what its like in the US but here they aren't encouraged to read for pleasure at school or home as kids, so they don't get into the habit- We start young in NZ. My Turkish family kind of laughed at me when I was reading books with Arwen from when she was just a week old in a kind of weird-foreigner-what-are-you-doing-she-can't-understand-that they are surprised that at 9 months she'll sit and look throught the pages of a book by herself (er before chewing it that is)...

sandyhoney said...

When I was teaching in Istanbul, teachers would swap books all the time. The problem with me is that when I get a book I love, I don't want to part with it. I've been trying to find one of those books that I lent out ever since I got back but have had no luck.

In my neighbourhood here in London there is a string of second hand stores; one has been trying to get rid of its books. These books are just piled up outside the store on a table with a "Free" sign buried behind it. I'm responsible for taking all of the National Geographics, some textbooks, and even a few bodice-rippers (not having read those since high-school, I thought it might be fun. Turns out, they're just corny and predictable and I didn't even finish it before I dropped it back off on the table.)

It was just interesting how it took weeks to get rid of the books.


Hope you're having a blast back in the USA - what's it like to be home? Any culture shock?

Stranger said...

It's something like culture shock. Last week we were in San Francisco, and there was a huge line of people snaking around the street. My dad went and found out they were all lining up for i-phones. I asked what the hell an i-phone is, and he sort of shook his head and said there's so much I'm missing. Not that he thinks i-phones are so important, but there are a lot of things in the American common consciousness that I'm missing out on.

Like American Idol. I didn't even realize Paris Hilton was a person until about 2 years ago. And then there's this new brand Tommy Bahama everyone is so excited about. So I'm not entirely sure missing out on this stuff is such a bad thing.

A table full of free books sounds like a sweet, sweet dream.