On reading, intelligence and heroes

My grandmother

One of the most broadminded, intelligent people I have known was my illiterate maternal grandmother. My grandmother, orphaned by 17, had been widowed twice by the time she was 43, she outlived eight of her twelve children and was blind for her last five years of life before dying aged 86 after a number of strokes after severe radiation sickness caused during the Chernobyl disaster. She lived the majority of her life in the northern Pindus mountains of Greece; her only time away was the three years she lived in Australia with my family in the 1970s. My grandmother was kindly towards everyone. Even those that said hurtful things to her. She would encourage her kids to play with the gypsy tsingani kids when the Greek kids picked on them because their dad had died. She taught her children escape routes to bomb shelters and how to shelter in the snow. She opened her doors to people regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds – Turks, Germans, Italians and British even though a few of her children had died in battle due to their countrymen. She stood up to the husbands in her village that abused their wives. One occasion had her defending a beaten woman with “You have a blond baby because your wife is blond and your mother is blond not because she slept with a blond man. Look at your kin!”. She was a keen economist, measuring food stores for her large family, managing her family’s agricultural land and the care of their sheep and goats, calculating their winter needs, never running out of food yet having enough to help out families that never planned ahead. When villagers sneered and spat at her grandchildren’s partners for being unmarried and non-Greeks she would stand up and say “If they are in my home that means I accept them. And if I accept them you have no right to come near my home and behave in such a way”.

My mother, observing the village priest walking around with a rifle slung over his shoulder during the Greek Civil War, asked her mother “Why does the priest carry a gun?”. My grandmother answered “You never do as the priest does, you only do as he says”.

My grandmother, who could not read or write, knew that it was the words that mattered and not the format in which the words were delivered. My grandmother is a model of Popperian cosmology. My grandmother knew how to listen and understood that the words did not belong to those who said them. “You only do as he says”. She knew that this man standing at the pulpit was reading from The Bible and these were not his words. She understood that the products of thought were not associated with the person orating the thoughts. She considered the words she heard, she played with them in her mind and in her strong intelligent manner decided on how she would allow those words to affect her.

I have been reading a lot of books and reports this past year on reading and to a lesser degree, literacy. I have found there is a lot of rhetoric around about the power of the written word, how reading gives you access to new worlds, more empathy and a deeper understanding of humanity. Sometimes, when I am reading about the importance of literacy, I get this sense that illiteracy and low-literacy is equated with being narrow-minded, simple, weak willed and being a victim. As though, illiterate people lack intelligence, lack the ability to listen to stories with focus and to employ an analytical mind that engages and observes the actions and feelings associated with the story or the information that they are hearing. There isn’t any example I can pinpoint. This sense I get is implicit. I am mindful that having low literacy does not mean you are not engaged in culture and politics or that you are unable to feel empathy for others. I have met many literate people in my life who are bigots. These are people who read broadly, yet they make racist and elitist comments, belittling others because they feel superior in their intelligence. Do I think I am smarter than others because I can read and write? Not at all. Do I feel that I possess more empathy for others purely because I read a lot and that the reader of one book a year has less empathy? Once again, no. For we are made up of the whole of our experiences and not only those associated with the words we read. I do think that my reading provides me more sources to draw from and I feel fortunate because I can enjoy storytelling in both oral and written forms but this does not make me a more empathetic person. But we are in a world that values the written word over the spoken word. Even now, in the 21st century, the majority of examinations in schooling are still written. There is no oral examination for native students of English in Australia (at least that I am aware of). You could be a lively, expressive student with deep cultural knowledge and an enquiring nature yet if your handwriting is slow or clumsy you are most likely going to be awarded a basic mark and will be described as having limited knowledge. This injustice angers me, astounds me, upsets me. Low literacy is not a mark of low intelligence.

Nobel Prize winner George Seferis considered General Yiannis Makriyannis to be one of Greece’s masters of Modern Greek Prose. General Makriyannis is one of the heroes of the Greek War of Independence and only taught himself to read and write, at age 35, after becoming the General Leader of the Executive Authority of the Peloponnese after the war. He taught himself to read and write because he was frustrated at the misreporting of the War of Independence and he wanted to leave his memoirs, his account. I first heard about Makriyannis from my incredibly well-read father. When I look upon my father’s bookshelves I find Aristotle, St Paul, Shakespeare, Boccaccio, Dante, Georgette Heyer, Dale Carnegie, Cicero, Grace Metalious, Patrick Dennis and tomes of encyclopeadias that he would read cover to cover. My dad never received any formal schooling. He grew up high in Central Greece’s mountains in a shangri-la. He taught himself to read when his village priest allowed him to access the church bible and the psalter and he received an occasional lesson from a passing teacher. His first formal education came with being drafted to the army where he was given charge of Sunday ecclesiastical lessons and the army sponsored his entry to study theology at the University of Athens. He completed 2 years of his studies before migrating to Australia. My dad, having taught himself to read and write in Greek, proceeded to teach himself to read and write in English and prided himself for being a white collar worker. I remember visiting him in his office in East Sydney where he sat at his desk puffing away at his cigarettes, ashtray piled high and his secretary at the desk next to him. My favourite story about my dad’s obsessive reading is from my uncle Arthur. It was the late 1950’s and my dad’s sister had been worried for she hadn’t heard from him for over a month so she sent her husband in search of my dad. My uncle Arthur asked around and discovered that dad was renting a bedsit in Kings Cross. He knocked at the door, when it opened from a thick plume of smoke emerged my father. My uncle asked him “Where did you disappear to?” to which my dad exclaimed “Into my books!”. Now, I realise there was a certain insensitivity in that my dad forgot to contact his sister to even say hello but imagine the glory of uninterrupted reading, drowning in the sea of storytelling. And as funny as this story is, the fact remains that his reading did not make him empathetic as to the needs of his worried sister.

There is not doubt that being literate, being well-read, opens many doors and gives people opportunities that would have been impossible without the skills to read and write. I am always grateful that I was born at a time, in a place and to parents, where learning to read and write was a core necessity as it is a skill that has given me many opportunities. Literacy programs are a necessity as they empower people in our print-based culture. But I am always conscious that being literate does not make me kinder, smarter or more motivated than someone who isn’t highly literate. When there is a call to promote a love of reading as a literacy tool, librarians, booksellers, publishers, authors, educators, all of us bookish souls must take care to not diminish the visual, aural, oral and personal experiences, as well as the intellectual capacities of people with low literacy for not only are they our equals but in many instances far surpass us as they have navigated a contrary life.

4 thoughts on “On reading, intelligence and heroes

  1. I am so glad you have used your skill with the written word to laud the intelligence, compassion and wisdom of your grandmother and many others who don’t use literacy. reading this has opened my eyes to my own assumptions – even though I know that cultures that use primarily oral or non-written visual communication can be rich, complex and full of knowledge, I too have assumed that all illiterate people in a literate world are ignorant and less wise than literate people (even though reading the words of some tertiary educated journalists should show otherwise).
    thank you!

  2. Hi Vass, loved your article, loved reading about your grandmother. What a pioneer in her day standing up against the men of the village. She must have been a strong woman. Your article made me think of one of my Ethiopian refugees in Perth who would always say that she was stupid because she found English difficult. I couldn’t believe that she thought that, she spoke 3 languages even though she had lived half her life in a refugee camp in the middle of a desert. It’s funny how people gauge intelligence.

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