Reading has been a lifelong source of wonder and pleasure, an escape route from the present, a dive into worlds, a transmission of knowledge, and a constant stimulation for my imagination and thinking. It is both precious and transformative and I cannot overstate how important it is to me.
The image above is a photograph I took of one of my Grandmother’s journals, which she wrote in her nineties. She wrote in Russian, and as I can’t read it, a kind friend is currently, slowly, translating for me. Every word that comes back to me is a connection to my Grandmother whose voice I can hear when I read.
Here she writes about reading and some of what it meant to her in her early life, late in the 19th century living deep in the countryside surrounded by forest, in the Russian heartland , before electricity, her mother read to her and the other children:
In the long autumn and winter evenings, when all of us children were sitting round the big table where a large lamp was burning, we listened to Mama’s reading. She used to read us many excerpts, which we could understand, from the books that were most read. Later on, when we were already teenagers and reading for ourselves, we had to read what Mama had once read to us. Father never read to us aloud, except for one fairy tale by Aksakov, “Alyenka’s little flower’, but only when we were ill. It was one of our favourite entertainments. I still have that story even now. My sister Sonya sent it to me in memory of days gone by. We knew it almost by heart, but always enjoyed listening to it when Father read it to us as invalids.
The process of reading for pleasure has also been described as a form of play that ‘allows us to experience other worlds and roles in our imagination’. Education standards research team (2012). Research evidence on reading for pleasure. The Dept. for Education.
I’ve just looked this story up and found out that it was published by Sergey Aksakov in 1858 (Аленький цветочек, Alenkiy tsvetochek), a version of Beauty and the Beast, which Grandma had told to me as child. Even more poignant for me, the Beauty in the Russian story was named Anastasia, which was my Grandmother’s name.
Illustration by Nikolay Alekseevich Bogatov (1854-1935) of the Russian fairy tale “The Scarlet Flower” (“Аленький цветочек”). Иллюстрация выполнена для альманаха “Волшебный фонарь”. In the public domain.
Leo Tolstoy as well as being one of the world’s greatest novelists and a great reader, whose writing my Grandmother much admired, worked throughout his life on questions of literacy and education and opened a series of free and radical schools for impoverished children, developed pedagogic theories and published works concerned with education. He interrupted his educational work by writing one of the world’s greatest novels War and Peace, and other novels. He was considered a man of dangerous ideas – including anarchism, vegetarianism and pacifism and although an aristocrat his practical support of the people was real. Here’s a link to some extraordinary footage (from Kenneth Clark’s Civilization) of Tolstoy’s death in 1910 a railway master’s cottage, showing people flocking to mourn him, and the funeral being repressed by the Tzarist soldiers.
Just as Tolstoy’s literary creations marked a step forward in the cultural development of mankind, so his educational doctrine made a unique contribution to teaching.
That the ideals of humanistic education and the principles of choice by the people, democracy and freedom in education did not, for Tolstoy, remain just a declaration or some kind of abstraction, is borne out by the methodological solutions put forward by him to the problems of education and by his practical activity as a teacher, an organizer of schools, the publisher of an educational journal and the author of textbooks for schools for the people.
Yegorov, S. F. (1994) Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). PROSPECTS: the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIV, no. 3/4, June 1994. p. 647–60.