State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

The distant memory of reading week

When I was in university mid February was reading week but we euphemistically called it suicide week. Mid winter, exams, and attending York University (long before the renovations in the last twenty years) with its concrete buildings acres apart creating wind chills ten degrees less than the awful temperature February actually brings made for a really “up beat” time. While the faculty at York felt that we needed this week off to catch up on the reading we would need to do to get our B.A. ‘s (a credit that means nothing now even though I killed myself for four years for it), us students used the time to either take off if our parents paid or sit in our crummy apartments forcing ourselves through Don Quixote.

I would love to reinstate reading week in my life now. I have a pile of books and documents on a table in my home that I need to get to in order to complete the various projects I have undertaken. I am slowly plowing through them. But, it would be great to have a week to get through them all. I could spend more time in the day reading but as I am somewhat old now, reading into the evening has become tricky. Reading in bed is almost out of the question. I try to get up early to read in the morning but alas I am not a morning person… I am the kind of person who bumps around the house until my tea is drunk.

Reading is imperative to be an artist of any merit. How does one grapple with story telling and myth making if you don’t know the central myths of yours and other cultures? A friend who is homeschooling asked me recently to teach her daughter poetry. She told me that her child knows how to rhyme and what a haiku was. I told her that all I could possibly do with someone under ten is teach them about ancient Greek myths and perhaps stories from the Bible. These are where many foundational myths come from. My friend was a little confused by this idea; but then she went to art school and didn’t spend a week in February sketching out theories of genocide in Gulliver’s Travels.

Perhsephone, Krater 4th B.C. A dark Greek myth it tells the tale of her perpetual travel to and from the underworld or a.k.a. spring and fall.
Persephone, Krater 4th B.C. A dark Greek myth, it tells the tale of her perpetual travel to and from the underworld or a.k.a. spring and fall.

We learn to think critically because of books and the written word. I can’t really think of any other human activity that allows for us to become compassionate, informed, deep thinking and open minded other than by reading. Perhaps if you work with an aid organization and experience the darkest reaches of human existence – that could rival a life of reading. Reading is the closest we get to experiencing the other. Religious types would tell you that a metaphorical relationship to a deity lets you experience the other and perhaps that is true but a book can do the same thing. In fact many religions are based on just that, a book.

What saves me from these continual dead days of winter are two things: physical activity and intellectual stimulation. I swing between being able to go skiing and getting to that novel I have to finish. Everything else becomes drudgery at this point. Even getting into the studio has been a less than fulfilling since I have two exhibitions to get ready for and the details of readying my work for that do not have the glamour that creating the work does. An exhibition is what everyone sees but getting there is a long protracted process and putting them up during a month like February can make you feel, well, like a character in a Russian novel. I have to ship the work to places hundreds of kilometers from my house thus making weather part of the logistics. You don’t fix one date for pick up, you fix three. It becomes a long march to Stalingrad in more ways than one.

Reading is exploration and gives us the excitement usually associated with being a child. When I spend time with my niece, and I know that every parent in the world knows this, she wants to play but also to read with me. Watching a child fixate on a page in a book is to understand a human’s greatest achievement; that we seek to comprehend the world around us and share our discoveries with others.

When you read you can find wonderful connections in life such as author Stephen Greenblatt (Swerve: How the World became Modern) who found that his children’s favourite author Maruice Sendak has many echoes of Shakespeare’s later plays in his work. He suggests that both authors use our inner child to convey feelings of “aggression, fear and longing” and that the wild in us is only dormant waiting to be unlocked and set free. Books even hundreds of years apart can set us free. What a wonderful thing to contemplate especially when the sky outsides seems to be white-grey and it’s raining ice, or snow, or no… yep, that is ice.

Pic from Theoi Greek Mythology website

State of the Arts will return March 7th.

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