A Civil Engineer’s View of Literature

I recently joined the Royal Society of Literature, and I’ve found that on their website (www.rsliterature.org) there are interesting pieces on topics related to reading and writing.  One piece which caught my eye is ‘Literature Matters: A Civil Engineer’s View’ by Gyan Shrivastava, who received his civil engineering education in India, Britain and the West Indies. He is a Chartered Civil Engineer.  After several years in the construction industry, he joined academia. In 2015, he retired as a Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.

Gyan Shrivastava

In his article, he says: “I am a retired civil engineer. I worked in practice and in academia. In sum, I belong to the world of concrete and steel. At age thirty, however, I entered into the world of literature: a book, found in an aircraft’s seat-pocket, became a turning point.

“The daytime flight, over an endless blue ocean, was nondescript. I read the book A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. By the time I landed, I saw the world, and my life, through a different lens – a lens which showed me the outcome of self-absorption. Inspired, I read more. In time, the words of Virginia Woolf (‘How Should One Read A Book?’) became a beacon:

“‘—- I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their awards – their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble – the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms – Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’

“Not long ago, I came across The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz, Professor of Psychoanalysis at University College in London. His words are telling: ‘Experience has taught me that our childhoods leave in us stories – stories we never found a way to voice, because no one helped us find the words. When we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us – we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.’

“Needless to say, literature gave me a purpose in my twilight years: I am writing my own story. Unexpectedly, I find that it is not different from constructing bridges and buildings. Put simply, words become concrete and steel, sentences span words as beams, paragraphs support sentences as columns, and punctuation marks connect as bolts and nuts. Moreover, a civil engineer may even have an inbuilt advantage in the world of thoughts and emotions. That is to say, an economy in the use of building materials can translate into an economy of words!”

I particularly like his quotation from Virginia Wolf that reading is its own great reward.

I haven’t read The Examined Life, but the excerpt above resonates for me – more as a writer than a reader.  As a child, our experiences leave indelible impressions on us, and they are important enough that we keep returning to them, to understand their meaning for us as malleable individuals.  So, in this sense they are stories – stories which we need to tell – not necessarily in their entirety or all at once, but in pieces that can be laid out on a table like a grand jigsaw to be savoured and tested for relationships.  I have found that, as a writer, there are pieces of me scattered about and to which I attach a new meaning.

‘Swiping Left’ on Books

Camilla Turner, Education Editor at The Daily Telegraph, had an article on the April 2 issue of the Telegraph, which was titled: ‘Time to turn over a new leaf as infants ‘swipe left’ on books’.

“Children are swiping on books in an attempt to turn pages, teachers have said, as they are confusing them with mobile phones and iPads,” the article began.

“There is a ‘disturbing’ trend of children in reception and at nursery school picking up library books and trying to ‘swipe left’, delegates at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) annual conference in Brighton were told.  During a debate about libraries, Jennifer Bhambri-Lyte, a delegate from North Somerset, told of “happy childhood memories” of “running into a library, snuggling in a corner with a book, cuddling up to mum, turning the pages, gazing at the pictures”.  She told the conference: “Kindles and iPads are wonderful things, but many of my friends talked about the smell of a book, finding tickets and receipts that someone had left as a bookmark, echoes of all the people that had been there before.”  Ms Bhambri-Lyte went on: “I’ve taught both nursery and reception and I personally still find it disturbing to see a child pick up a book and try to swipe left.” She said that books are a now luxury that many struggling families cannot afford, and that libraries can act as a “pair of armbands”.

“A previous report by the National Literacy Trust (NLT) advised parents to turn to iPads and Kindles to get boys interested in reading, amid fears that large numbers of children are shunning books at a young age.   Their research found that children aged three to five often read for longer and had a better grasp of vocabulary when accessing touch-screen technology. Tablet computers had a particular impact on groups that are traditionally most resistant to reading – particularly boys and infants from poor families, the study added.”

The article went on to complain about the reduction in the number of public libraries in the UK, due to budget cuts.  Quite what the relationship might be between ‘swiping left’ and library budget cuts is not clear.  For some reason, children swiping left in their library reminds teachers and librarians that budgets are being cut.  If one disentangles this strange logic, it seems to me that there is nothing particularly ‘disturbing’ about children swiping left.  They will soon learn that this is not the most effective way to turn the pages of a book.  On the other hand, reducing the number of public libraries is certainly a very poor idea.

Darkness in Kids Books

Last month, there was an essay in Time Magazine by Matt de la Pena, author of the childrens’ books, in which he discussed the importance of writing about painful experiences in the books he writes.

Matt de la Pena

He says, “A few weeks ago, illustrator Loren Long and I learned that a major gatekeeper would not support our forthcoming picture book, Love, an exploration of love in a child’s life, unless we “softened” a certain illustration. In the scene, a despondent young boy hides beneath a piano with his dog, while his parents argue across the living room. There is an empty old fashioned glass resting on top of the piano. The feedback our publisher received was that the moment was a little too heavy for children. And it might make parents uncomfortable. This discouraging news led me to really examine, maybe for the first time in my career, the purpose of my picture book manuscripts. What was I trying to accomplish with these stories? What thoughts and feelings did I hope to evoke in children?”

“This particular project began innocently enough. Finding myself overwhelmed by the current divisiveness in our country, I set out to write a comforting poem about love. It was going to be something I could share with my own young daughter as well as every kid I met in every state I visited, red or blue. But when I read over one of the early drafts, something didn’t ring true. It was reassuring, uplifting even, but I had failed to acknowledge any notion of adversity.

“So I started over.

“A few weeks into the revision process, my wife and I received some bad news, and my daughter saw my wife openly cry for the first time. This rocked her little world and she began sobbing and clinging to my wife’s leg, begging to know what was happening. We settled her down and talked to her and eventually got her ready for bed. And as my wife read her a story about two turtles who stumble across a single hat, I studied my daughter’s tear-stained face. I couldn’t help thinking a fraction of her innocence had been lost that day. But maybe these minor episodes of loss are just as vital to the well-adjusted child’s development as moments of joy. Maybe instead of anxiously trying to protect our children from every little hurt and heartache, our job is to simply support them through such experiences. To talk to them. To hold them.”

He went on to say that he was in Rome, Georgia, reading to some school children, when “I decided, on a whim, to read Love to them, too, even though it wasn’t out yet. I projected Loren’s illustrations as I recited the poem from memory, and after I finished, something remarkable happened. A boy immediately raised his hand, and I called on him, and he told me in front of the entire group, “When you just read that to us I got this feeling. In my heart. And I thought of my ancestors. Mostly my grandma, though … because she always gave us so much love. And she’s gone now.”

“And then he started quietly crying.

“And a handful of the teachers started crying, too.

“I nearly lost it myself. Right there in front of 150 third graders. It took me several minutes to compose myself and thank him for his comment.  On the way back to my hotel, I was still thinking about that boy, and his raw emotional response. I felt so lucky to have been there to witness it. I thought of all the boys growing up in working-class neighborhoods around the country who are terrified to show any emotion. Because that’s how I grew up, too — terrified. Yet this young guy was brave enough to raise his hand, in front of everyone, and share how he felt after listening to me read a book. And when he began to cry a few of his classmates patted his little shoulders in a show of support. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so moved inside the walls of a school.  That’s why I write books. Because the little story I’m working on alone in a room, day after day, might one day give some kid out there an opportunity to “feel.” And if I’m ever there to see it in person again, next time hopefully I’ll be brave enough to let myself cry, too.”

I have to add that the illustration Matt is talking about is evocative.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it on line, but is it focused on a grand piano with a small boy, hugging his legs, head down, sheltered beneath it.  His dog is cuddled up next to him.  On the left is a woman, covering her face with her hands, and on the right is a man, leaving the room.  The text says: “But it’s not only stars that flame out, you discover.  And friendships.  And people.”

America, the Ugly

As an American living in Europe, I am often asked whether I miss the States and whether I will return there.  The answer I give is that I miss my family and friends living there, but that I have no plans to return to the States.  In fact, in the current environment, I would find America a disagreeable place to live.

Those of you who visit this blog on the expectation of stimulating thoughts from an author’s point of view I ask your indulgence that I might – just this once? – enlarge the topic.

My impression of America today, based in the voices I hear from across the Atlantic – the formal media, social media, politicians, commentators, activists and private individuals – is that it has become a violent, racist, and un-educated country, and my impression is that this is a view shared by many non-Americans.  To be clear, I’m not focusing on the President; to my mind, he is only the cheerleader of a violent, racist, un-educated minority, a minority that is attempting to dominate the discourse on issues with a stridency which seems to seek a change in the culture of America.  The desired culture appears to be more fragmented, more ‘them-and-us’, less orderly, and more beneficial to the loudest.

When I mention an ‘un-educated minority’, I am not speaking of Americans who have only a high school or secondary school education.  For me, it’s not about the number of years of education one has; rather it’s about how one behaves.  There are Americans with graduate degrees who are behaving like cretins and high school drop-outs who display considerable wisdom.

I believe that there are two vital behaviours which the ‘un-educated’  are neglecting: the systematic collection of reliable, non-business-related information, and the deliberate, dispassionate analysis of this information.  These two behaviours, taken together, are the foundations of good citizenship.  What kind of information am I talking about?  General, wide-ranging information on subjects including history, social science, physical science, theology, sports, finance, psychology, art and politics.  If one doesn’t have at least an understanding of the trends in these areas, how can can one call oneself a knowledgeable citizen?  And it isn’t just a question of having ‘facts’ at one’s disposal: the ‘facts’ can be wrong or misleading.  Trust only sources of information that are reliable and have no incentive to bend the truth.  It takes time, attention and effort to become half-educated.

And the other half of being ‘educated’ is perhaps more difficult: it involves setting aside one’s personal agenda and biases (my, particular religion/political beliefs/economic circumstances/social standing/etc.) in order to understand alternative viewpoints and to analyse dispassionately the pros and cons.  (Nothing other than arithmetic is always right.)

It seems to me that the ‘uneducatedness’ of some Americans, who have insufficient or wrong information and analyze it superficially, is what leads to racism and violence.  Racism (and other forms of intolerance) cannot stand up to the ‘educated citizenship’ approach.

By ‘violence’, I’m not just referring to gun violence, but to abuse of all kinds, and to the desire to disrupt the status quo just to ‘punish the system’.  The latter two forms of violence are invalidated by informed analysis.

Gun violence is a particular issue for me, as a resident of England, where reliable adults can have rifles and shotguns, subject to certification and safe storage, and where handguns and automatic weapons are proscribed.  Does this handicap the British population, many of whom are keen hunters?  No.  Gun violence is a tiny fraction of what it is in the US.  Apart from this, the major difference between the two countries is that there is no ‘constitutional right’ in the UK to bear arms.  But, the Second Amendment was based partially on the right to keep and bear arms in English common law and was influenced by the English Bill of Rights of 1689.  Yet, there is no ‘constitutional right’ in the UK.

As I think about the causes of ‘uneducatedness’, two things come to mind: laziness – unwillingness to take the time and effort to inform oneself and to think clearly – and discontentment with one’s situation in life, which, while sometimes justified, can lead to the the blaming of others or the ‘system’.  Laziness is, of course, self-inflicted, and if one is discontented, the best remedy is action, not blame.