Ramírez, Reading & Responsibility

The presenter introduced Sergio Ramírez with all the formal flourish that the Spanish language provides for; a laudatory salute that seems unique to places where poets serve as public servants.  The presenter mentioned the publications Ramírez has contributed to; the number of his essays, short stories, and novels; told of his political history and his creation of Nicaraguan publications and organizations of reform. The presenter was obviously very proud of having such an influential man in the room, and finally said, “I give you, author, poet, thinker, ex-president Sergio Ramírez!”

(c) Overdue Media LLC, used with permission

The man who has given talks at over forty academic institutions around the world (including Cornell University) took the podium. “Thank you for the very generous introduction,” he started.  And what he said next illustrates the difference between poets and politicians.“I’d like to make it clear that I’ve never been a president, but only a vice-president. That being said, I guarantee that I’ve never been a vice-writer.” This produced laughter throughout the auditorium, but there was a hidden joke in his statement. The title of his speech, which he then gave us, was “Consejos de un vicioso.” The translation of this last word, vicioso, is difficult to carry out because there is no single word in English that fits well enough, and I’d have to resort to a clunky extra phrase: “Advice from one who is vicious.” The English version of the title is not as crisp, but the key word is vicious, and I will explain this later in the post. For now, I will provide a translated, partly paraphrased, and abridged version of Ramírez’s speech, working from notes and memory.

“TVs, computers, mobile phones. All around us now are screens with instantaneous, informative images. Everyone is asking questions about reading in the digital age. I even have trouble convincing my grandchildren that there did used to be such a thing as black-and-white television, and that I grew up with just the radio. People are reading more and more on the Internet, and do you know how that goes? You skim the first line, skip down the paragraph to middle, skim that sentence, and skip onwards. It’s all a rush to get fragments of information and keep moving.

Not so with books. The words on a page are a correspondence of images between the writer and reader, a bridge of words that can’t be destroyed by digitalization because of the power of imagination. I’ve always loved books. I bought old and second-hand, the only way one could, and grew intimately familiar with each of their distinct smells and volumes, their soft and hard parts, with the space that they took up in my bags.

The virtual world is precarious and illusory. With one crash the screen goes blank and memory is deleted. Ink printed on paper is imperishable except at the hands of mold, moth, and fire. When I worked for the first time on a computer, I used an IBM and the word processor Lotus Symphony. This was from 1995 to 1998. My manuscript took up over 20 floppy disks.” Here Ramírez paused, observing the silence of the audience, and explained, “Today, not a single computer on the market can read these disks.” He got the expected laughs.

“So things are always changing. Sumerian clay tablets to Egyptian papyrus; scroll manuscripts to bound books. We can imagine the dismay of scholarly monks when they heard of the creation of such a thing as the printing press, which would achieve the copying that took the religious men years to complete in a matter of days. Maybe we don’t need to fear digital books too much, as long as the literature itself remains authentic as always. Some people—authors included—worry about rewriting material that has already been done. They worry that all creativity for novels has been exhausted. But stories have always been the same. Narrative methods remain constant since the first book. Themes and plots are perpetually recycled. All paths have been trodden before. Take Homer’s Odyssey. Ulysses goes through unknown risks based on myths; he uses disguises, tricks, and help from supernatural beings. In the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, the young queen has to fool the King into letting her live every night by starting (but never finishing) stories that include every single one off these themes from The Odyssey. Even the queen’s trick itself reminds us of Penelope’s efforts to stall her suitors by unraveling her father-in-law’s death shroud every night. The suspension of disbelief at verisimilar tales in ancient texts like The Odyssey and Arabian Nights is required in all fiction of today. I don’t think we need to worry that fiction writing (and more importantly, reading) will die out.

But if a book doesn’t entertain, if it doesn’t make a child laugh, gasp, or wait breathlessly for a resolution, then it won’t teach, because a boring book is never finished. My grandsons, 12 and 13, read the voluminous bricks that make up the Harry Potter series, which I myself have never opened. If the four thousand pages of these mighty tomes don’t daunt millions of youngsters around the world, then our Nicaraguan children can certainly lose themselves (and learn) in much shorter but equally inspiring works.

Books that are forced upon children become indigestible and lose future readers. On the other hand, the books that often win future readers are banned books, censored by bitter people who don’t understand the value of literature.”

Here I thought of one of my favorite childhood books, The Giver, which I found extraordinarily creative and only years later discovered was widely controversial in its subject matter. Ramírez’s comment on banned books also reminded me of the surprisingly fitting t-shirt design pictured at the beginning of the post.

(c) Overdue Media LLC, used with permission

As you can see when you click on the image, the red text in the back includes the titles of some of the most often banned books (including The Giver). Given that Ramírez was a member of the Nicaraguan revolution and is now championing educational reform, I wouldn’t be surprised if he already owned one of these t-shirts (okay, I would be, a little), especially given these following sentences, which were Ramírez’s closing remarks:

“Only through imaginative reading can children become addicted to it. To acquire the vice of reading, they need help from family. A conspiracy of sorts between teachers and parents and brothers and sisters must be organized to get a child immersed in books.”

Conspiracies to imbue the vice of reading. These were very interesting phrases, and especially a curious use of the word vice. Remember that Ramírez’s title was “Advice from one who is vicious,” and that the words “vice” and “vicious” share the Latin root vitium (no, “advice” doesn’t have any relation). Ramírez obviously didn’t mean that reading was comparable to smoking or gambling, but that reading should be to children a healthy addiction that promotes education and creativity.

That’s why his first words, with the witty comment, “I’ve never been a vice-writer,” seem so clever in retrospect. Sure, the prefix “vice” in this case comes from a different Latin root (vice). Maybe he hasn’t been a vice-writer in the Latin vice sense, but with forty-one published books I’d say he’s been a vice-writer according to the vitiumdefinition.

With the last words of his speech came the end of the congress. The auditorium divided into groups of people trying to take pictures of themselves with banners, teachers walking up to Ramírez to ask him to sign their copies of his latest book, and others who had to catch buses back to their hotels or home countries.

I climbed the stairs to the stage and waited in line to get my first autograph ever. I mentioned in my first post on the congress that I had my shirt signed, lacking a book and not wanting to lose a little scrap of paper. Looking at the other people in the autograph line, I knew that I was going to stand out not only as the single Caucasian male there, but also as the only one without a book. What kept me on the stage was my trust that my shirt would please the poet.

I shook Ramírez’s hand, introduced myself, and explained my request. As I crouched to let him put the bottom of the shirt on his signing desk, he looked at the two words printed on the chest and grinned. “That’s sort of what I was trying to say, isn’t it?” he chuckled.




4 thoughts on “Ramírez, Reading & Responsibility

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