Ulf Stark is a highly acclaimed Swedish children’s author. Learn more at http://geckopress.co/Ulf_Stark_25.aspx.
My childhood home was simply prototypical when it came to reading encouragement methods. “If you do not read good books you will turn into an idiot,” my father said. His library was located on the ground floor and most of its contents had been bought per kilo in second-hand bookshops. There you could find half-bound editions of Burroughs´s immortal Tarzan-books, Russian classics, tables of logarithms and The Female Sexuality in three volumes in German with pictures. When I had reached the proper age, I used to study the last-mentioned volumes while my mother and father were taking bracing Sunday walks. My father´s library, in short, was the perfect library for the young and the old.
Every evening when my brother and I had gone to bed and brushed our teeth, my mother read to us and our nursery was inhabited with fire-breathing dragons, pilots from the Royal Airforce, princesses, pigs and well-dressed elephants from Celesteville. She always opened this evening sessions with dramatic flair:
“Perhaps me to read anything tonight?” she said.
“But we do,” we protested.
“You do look a bit tired,” she smiled.
“If you don´t we will never go to sleep,” we said.
“Oh well, just for a while then.”
And she started to read until her voice broke. And then she left. But what stayed in our minds was an early imprint of the structure of fairy tale and story, that helps us to understand other stories and enables us to create someting similar of our own, since we know what the strange land of Imagination looks like. I don´t think my father had counted on that last bit.
His purpose for reading was mainly pedagogic. A good book taught us a rich and varied language, it had every comma in its right place, a sound moral influence on our minds and was all the better if it contained some useful facts of a geographical, historical or similar nature.
“Why is a good book good?” I asked him once.
“Because it has what it takes,” he said.
“And what is that?”
“That which is Right, True and Beautiful,” he said as if he was a reincarnated Swedish bishop.
“I think I´ll start with the Beautiful,” I said.
From previous experience I knew that his opinion about the Right and the True was rather stuffy. So I went off and fetched myself a picturebook.
At that time, before I learned how to read, I was a very fluent reader. I read:
“And there is the dog. It is black and white. Oh, it´s so tired… and so hungry… And its coat is all tangled and dirty because the person who used to own it is all dead and buried in the ground… And now it has been walking for days. Because it has to find someone new, who can take care of it and give it food. But it is so dirty and skinny that nobody wants it. Every-one kicks it and shouts: Shoo, shoo, you ugly mutt!”
My eyes filled with tears when I read the last bit.
I hadn´t noticed my mother coming over.
“What is that awful book you are reading?” she asked.
“The Poor Dog,” I said.
She bent over and peered into the book.
“But my dear boy,” she said. “Don´t you see, there is no dog in the picture, only a swineherd, three pigs, a couple of ladies-in-waiting and a princess.”
She was right. That is, if you threw a superficial and swift glance at the picture.
But I saw deeper than that.
“There is one,” I said. “Underneath the tree, in the woods, behind the pigsty. There it lies licking its sore paw. Because now it has stepped on a rose thorn.”
“You´re making it up, darling,” my mother said.
“No, I´m reading,” I said. ”Listen!”
And then I went on reading exuberantly. I read about the dog limping towards the pigsty hoping for a morsel of the pig food and about the swineherd who caught sight of it.
“Poor, poor dog,” he said and gently removed the thorn from the paw. “You do look hungry and thirsty.”
The dog licked the swineherd´s face, which by the way was rather round and childish.
“Shoo, shoo!” yelled the princess. “Can´t you see how dirty it is? It must be full of germs! Get rid of that mutt immediately!”
But the swineherd didn´t. First he looked into the dog´s eyes and saw how much sorrow and pain it felt. Then he gave it a bath and food and love, although the princess stamped her foot and cried like the castle fountain. She said he must choose between her and the dog.
It wasn´t a hard choice.
“I choose the dog,” he said.
Eventually, the dog became the most distinguished swine dog in the country and no one had ever loved anyone as much as the swineherd loved that dog.
When I finished my mother had forgotten that the pictures in the book talk completely different story. She used her apron to wipe away a tear of movement.
“Isn´t it wonderful that everything worked out so well in the end?” she said.
That was how I read to begin with. I read under the language and I saw what took place behind the pictures. It was the best way of reading. It activated my entire capacity to fantasize.
I was inspired by the stories my mother read to me – just like my friends were inspired by their reading experiences – and in that way we made our ordinary everyday lives less ordinary. We managed to draw excitement, drama, comedy and even a tiny bit of eroticism from the limited conditions offered by the small suburb in which we lived. Mr Gustavsson, a surly but decent neighbour of ours who worked at the power station, was for example immediately appointed the role of a monster. Because we knew that every story needed at least one scary character. And we didn´t wanted our lives to be less exciting.
“He is bloody well out of his mind,” we whispered in order to give each other a good scare. He boils cats alive. And shuts innocent children in his basement.We had absolutely no grounds for theses accusations. None other than that he looked severe. And that he polished his car in a creepy kind of aggressive way. But the real reason was that the lies, which we fairly soon came to believe in ourselves, made it more exciting to steal his pears.
“Damn it - Gustavsson!” we exclaimed as we sneaked into his garden in the autumn evenings and heard the leaves rustling. “We are dead!” And then we shivered from the pleasant sense of fear caused by our own imagination.
But one evening, the worst possible thing happened. We heard the gate creak behind our backs. And there was Gustavsson holding a pickaxe.
“So it is you!” he said in a calm and nasty voice. “Ulf, Klas-Göran, Bertil and the restaurant-keeper´s son.”
“Yes,” we mumbled, kissing our short lives goodbye.
“Well, well,” he said. “You see, all I wanted to say is that you´re welcome to take as many pears as you want… I have too many as it is. But please be careful with the branches. Well, that´s all. Good night lads.”
And then he left. And we never went back. He had crushed and boiled our dreams. He had ruthlessly stepped out of the part we had assigned him to play.
“What are we going to do now?” Berra sighed.
“Well, how about Eskilsson from the paint shop?” Klas-Göran said. “He has pear trees as well as a hearing aid.”
“And he has sharpened his front teeth with a file, just like a cannibal.”
“That´s true,” the restaurant-keeper´s son confirmed in a trembling voice. “And his hearing aid is tuned in so that he can hear the dead speaking.”
Our bellies fluttered with a sense of uncanny anticipation. We had regained our fear of death as well as our will to live.
“Did you know that Eskilsson from the paint shop has sharpened all his front teeth to make them sting like arrowheads?” I asked my mother when I got home.
“No, I really didn´t,” she said.
She brought the subject up when we were having our evening tea. My father had taken off his dentist´s coat for the day. He had put on his leisure tie and was just about to sink his teeth into a saffron-flavoured bun.
“Ulf says that Mr Eskilsson, you know he from the paint shop, has sharpened his front teeth to make him look like a cannibal,” my mother said.
My father put the bun back on the table. Then he lifted one pedagogic finger in the air. And then another.
“First of all,” he said, “I don´t want to hear about teeth when I´m eating. Secondly, I know for a fact that he has not sharpened his front teeth. He is after all a patient of mine.”
“But this is only in the evenings,” I said. “In the daytime he wears false teeth so no one will notice. He is a vampire.”
“Stop,” my father said. “Your imagination is running away with you. You have to learn to differ between what is false and what is true, Ulf. You are old enough to do that now. By the way, how old are you?”
“Nine,” I said.
“That´s right,” he said. “You are a nine-year-old boy and one would expect you to stick to the truth.”
“Yes,” I said.
“It is a step towards growing up,” he said. “Because you know what may happen if you don´t?”
“No, ” I said.
“You may have to have an operation on your stomach,” he said.
He had recently read about such a case in the newspaper. A man had lied and said that his belly hurt because he didn’t want to go to work. And he had had his appendix removed, although there was nothing wrong with him.
“Look what happened to him,” my father said. “Do you understand now how grave a matter the truth is?”
“Yes,” I said.
“So now you´ll stop making things up and stick to the truth in the future, won´t you?”
“Yes,” I said, keeping my fingers crossed. Because I didn´t mean it – not deep down anyway.
I had already mentioned how stuffy my father´s sense of truth was. It only referred to externally provable facts. But I knew – that much I had learned from literature – that there was another kind of truth, which didn´t look like the old ordinary truth, but concerned the POSSIBLE, that which might be. It is from this IMAGINARY TRUTH that comfort, hope and art are descended. But I didn´t tell my father that. Not then.
What have I learnt from reading?
Reading has made my life richer and more exciting.
But to begin with it didn´t go very well, that is, when I had to take the step from pretending to read to actually reading. As soon as I had exhausted myself making out which letters made up which words, and which words made up which sentences, there was no meaning to what I read. There was no poor dog that fought starvation and hard-ships. No English pilots who hade to make emergency landings at night in the desert.
“Why do I have to learn to read?” I asked my first teacher.
“If you cannot think of a better reason, do it for my sake,” she said. And I did. I made an effort, because she was worth it. She was young and good-looking and smelled of wild strawberries. I gave her a kiss once when she helped tie my shoelaces during a break. But just when we were about to begin with the letter B she said she had to leave.
“Why!?” we shouted.
”Because I´m having a baby,” she said.
“Who from?” Bengt-Erik asked.
”From my husband,” she said. “His name is Nisse.”
“Damn you Nisse,” I said.
“You shouldn´t swear,” she said. “Besides you will have a new teacher. And I´m sure is will be both kind and wonderful.”
Then she wrote the letter B on the black board. It was the most beautiful B I had ever seen. It looked like her in profile.
“B as in baby,” she said.
“B as in Barbro,” I thought. Because that was her name.
We thought she was descended from heaven, Barbro. But she came from The Stockholm Institute of Education. And she was not telling the truth. Our new teacher was neither kind nor wonderful. She seemed to be descended from The Surplus Stock For Old Pedagogical Bats. She was stern and wrinkly and didn´t smell good at all.
She worried about my lack of enterprise.
“It is not your fault that you lack a head for studying,” she said. “But you could at least make an effort to concentrate in class. How will you ever learn to read and write?”
“As far as I´m concerned the letter B will do,” I said.
“Yes, that is if you want to stay a complete moron,” she sniffed.
She represented a school that called for progress. And eventually, despite my proud intention – I learned also the remaining letters in the alphabet.
“And now WORLD LITERATURE AWAITS YOU,” my father said. And he was right.I read and read. And suddenly I wrote.
One december night I lay in bed, looking out the window and thinking about the concept of truth.In the end I came to the surprising conclusion that the reality of books is in fact more ”real” than what we usually think of as reality. This I told my father at breakfast.
“What are you saying?” he said.
“There is more truth in what books tell us than in reality,” I said.
“Where did you get this rubbish idea from?” my father said.
“From nowhere,” I said. “I thought it all by myself.”
“But my dear boy, what makes you think such strange thoughts?” my mother said.
I tried to explain. I told them literature consists of that which someone has really thought, felt and imagined deep inside. It describes an true inner world.
“Sure,” my father said.
“But the reality outside – how do we really know what it looks like?” I said. “We could be looking at it in completely different ways.”
Then my father pointed at one of the dining-room chairs.
“What do you see over there?” he said.
“A chair,” I said.
“That´s right,” he said. “Every one with eyes in their heads can see that that is a chair.”
“Perhaps,” I said and pointed at my mother. “But what do you see over there?”
“My wife,” he smiled because he liked looking at her.
“That´s right,” I said. “But I see my mother. There you go!”
“What is to become of you,” my mother said in a worried voice.
“A writer,” I said. “I will be a writer.”
“What is the use of being a writer,” my father said. “What will it be good for?”
“For the country,” I said. I only said that because it sounded grand. But I think I was right. Our unique ability to imagine things we cannot see nor hear, enables us to figure out anything from corkscrews to the theory of curved space-time, operas, propellers and the Divina Commedia. All of these concepts existed inside a human head before they became real. And there is nothing that will exercise our capacity for imagination as well as books.