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4 Conundrums from Doris Lessings' Novel Lecture

Do we value education more when resources are scarce?

Six African children

Doris Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing

I picked up a Doris Lessing book to read a while ago just because I’m a sucker for a pretty phrase and was enticed by the title, The Grass is Singing. While I’d heard the name Doris Lessing because she was a Nobel Laureate, I hadn’t read anything else by her. The story was — according to the notes in my book journal,

“…extremely well-written, but so daggone depressing. It’s a stunning picture of Mary Turner’s descent into madness caused by the loss of dignity, poverty, extreme heat, and isolation…
The final scene of Mary’s plunge into insanity is masterful. I can see how her dementia actually works and was particularly struck by the seemingly-real fear that the trees were attacking her.”

The book, The Grass is Singing, like many of Lessing’s others, takes place in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) where Lessing had grown-up, and the plot involves the murder of a poor farm woman. It was obviously not a happy book, filled with tension, prejudice, anger, poverty, and hatred. But in the back of those sad, sad pages was a buried treasure.

Nobel Prize Lecture

My digital copy of The Grass is Singing included a reprint of the lecture that Doris Lessing wrote after her win of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007. (The speech was delivered by her literary agent because Lessing was unable to attend the Nobel ceremony due to back problems.)

I remembered Lessing’s Nobel lecture, not her novel. I was struck by the thoughts her stories provoked. In fact, over and over since I read that book, her ideas have pricked my consciousness, sticking me over and over with their insightfulness and sad reality. Lessing makes four assertions throughout her talk that provoked me:

1. Many students don’t value books

Lessing points out that books are a precious commodity in Africa, sought after and envied. Everybody everywhere she goes asks for books. Schools literally beg for books:

“Please send us books when you get back to London…They taught us to read, but we have no books.”

She remembers delivering a crate of books to a village, and people cried tears of joy. For days afterword, people would meet under a tree, the ones who could read would teach those who couldn’t. She tells of a Zimbabwean friend who taught himself to read from a children’s encyclopedia he found in the trash. Lessing recounts the story of a woman who read, slowly and painfully from a section torn out of Anna Karenin, walking miles with two young children, her mind thinking not of dust, thirst, and hardship, but the story.

Lessing chronicles stories of teachers without books —and students without supplies — who are eager to learn and use what they have. They scratch words in the dust with sticks and form letters with pebbles. The desire to read and learn exceeds the lack of materials, but it’s difficult without books.

“I do not think many of the pupils of this school will get prizes,” Lessing declares.

It made me wonder. If books were scarce in America, would we appreciate them more?

2. Reading — not just the ability to do it, but the practice of doing it for gaining knowledge — should be an integral aspect of any education

Lessing contrasts the African appreciation of books with a story of a visit to a school for privileged boys in London and a conversation she had about the school’s library and its use. The teacher replies,

“Oh, you know how it is…A lot of the boys have never read at all, and the library is only half used.”

Lessing laments,

“It is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some specialty or other, for instance, computers….Reading, books, used to be part of a general education…And if children cannot read, it is because they have not read.”

The students who have access to books, and take advantage of that access, will be the ones to win the future prizes. But what about the ones who want to read, but don’t have books? Doesn’t that make it doubly sad that so many of our students have access and don’t care?

3. The Internet is changing the world just like the printing press did, but we don’t know HOW it’s changing us

“How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by this Internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging, etc.?”

Lessing is not the first to ask that question, and she won’t be the last. Again, her statements cause me to wonder. What would happen if the time we spend on social media, posting selfies, and playing games was spent reading books? Would we change the future by producing more educated, thinking individuals? Is the internet — unlike the printing press — making us dumber?

4. To have literature, people have to value books

Lessing’s Nobel lecture is titled “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize,” a reference to those African children who won’t succeed because they don’t have books. She cites multiple examples of how great minds and previous Nobel winners in Literature have had access to the written word from a young age.

“Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books,” she says.

The great thinkers and writers of the world have been taught by thousands and thousands of pages in books.

And why are writers necessary for a society to flourish?

Because we need storytellers. As Lessing puts it,

“… It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.”

Doris Lessing wrote dozens of books and short stories, many of them feminist in feel, delving into issues of race, roles, colonization, sexuality, and identity. She was unconventional, sometimes acerbic, and often curmudgeonly. She died in 2013 at the age of 94.


Buy The Grass Is Singing from Amazon.

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