The power of imagination

It’s a holiday and it’s raining. My next door neighbor has a hard time keeping her kids busy, by the sound of it. Normally these sounds come from the backyard. A grey, tiled area covered with lots of plastic toys and empty soda bottles. All soaking wet now. And from that crowded house on the other side of the wall the noise keeps coming. The huge flat screen, the stereo, four screaming children and a ranting mum.
If only they would read, I think to myself. That would make a whole lot of difference. But I know they don’t do any reading in that household, except when schoolwork has to be done. She finds reading boring, stupid. She told me once when we had a chat while I was just on my way to the library. What a difference would it make. Simply because reading always does.
But why read? Almost all stories are on film now, some people say. True, but that’s not the same. Not by far. There is a huge difference between being entertained or being challenged. The difference between watching TV or reading a book can best be compared with the difference between eating processed food or cooking a meal. The first is about merely consuming what’s been served. The latter indeed challenges you to use your imagination. It puts your brain to work, mobilizes your synapses to form new connections and then more understanding, more connecting, more imagining evolves. And in the end no one can control how this understanding and imagining takes place, for it happens inside of you. Whereas films only offer you somebody else’s imagination.
When sometime in 2003, I heard that Cold Mountain was being filmed it surprised me that Nicole Kidman would play the role of Ada. Whose idea was that, I remember thinking. The Ada I had in mind was more a Julia Ormond. That typical Southern laziness in voice and movement, the bedroom eyes, and most of all the soft curls in her neck. The ones Charles Frazier describes so delicately. No matter how fine an actress Nicole Kidman is, Ada was and never will be a cool tall blonde.
But there you have it, solid proof that imagination is a very personal thing. First of all when it comes to content, I mean, every reader envisions his or her own Ada. It’s also a very personal thing by the way it works. It cannot easily be controlled by others. Unless you let them. Unless you switch your own head off and consume the images and ideas other people have cooked for you.
The real power of reading is that it makes you powerful. That’s why systems and leaders of a certain kind like their masses illiterate. They can fill up people’s minds with whatever they wish. And with the heads switched off collectively, most people aren’t even aware of the fact they have a head, a mind of their own to begin with. That’s how millions and millions of people over thousands of years have been kept in place. Numb, dumb, silent. That’s why journalist, philosophers, artists, scholars are the first to get incarcerated by oppressive regimes.
Just imagine a Russian peasant woman in 1916. Her son is fighting Germans at some muddy frontline. She goes to the village scribe to write him a letter. Dear son, it says, we had a bit of misfortune. Our cow got sick and died. Your little sister got sick as well and died too. I’m getting by, all considering. Hope you are well. Love, your mother. And of course this letter has to be read to him by some educated officer, with twenty odd men at hearing distance.
Now imagine this mother’s letter, had she been able to write it herself. Dear son, our only cow was taken by the Czar’s men. As a result your little sister starved to death. O, and by the way, I am living with aunt Tanya now, for they burnt down the place as well. Now get the hell over here. We have some serious revolting to do!
That is the power that comes with being literate. You can process your own experiences, make up your own mind, tell your own story in your own words. And most important, you can imagine a life, any life other than the one you are stuck in right now.
That is why slaves, workers, women, weren’t allowed to learn how to read. Not because of the content, which in some cases could be very handy, like cooking recipes or machine manuals. Yet too much is at stake to even consider it. The risks are simply too high, of people – enslaved, oppressed, downtrodden people – to somehow get access to their own minds and discover in there the endless freedom and the myriad of possibilities.
Once people discover the power of their own thinking, of their own mind and imagination, there is no way back. You can put their body in a cage for as long as you like, but not the mind. And that is what vexes dictators and tyrants. Not being able to control the minds of those who have discovered and mastered the power of reading and writing and thinking. And most of all the power of imagining themselves as different people living different, free lives in a different, better world.

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One Reply to “The power of imagination”

  1. Top Maria. Het begint bij voorlezen, maar what if…….
    als je het niet van huis uit meekrijgt, dan geef je het vaak ook niet door. Heb je wel de kans om het door te geven dan nog leest de één wel en de ander niet. Natuurlijk zijn er ook uitzonderingen, gelukkig.

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