Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Readers, pseudo-readers, and non-readers

Today is World Book Day. I hear that, in 1923, booksellers in Spain wanted to honour Miguel de Cerventes, author of Don Quixote, on 23 April, the day of his death, and that is how April 23 came to be celebrated as World Book Day all over the world. By a happy coincidence, if I might use the word “happy” in this context, William Shakespeare also died on 23 April, according to the Julian calendar, which was still in use in England at the time. In the UK, however, World Book Day is celebrated on the first Thursday of March.

That April 23 is World Book Day became part of my knowledge only a couple of years ago when I came across an article on the subject in a newspaper.  Having gained this piece of knowledge, I called a librarian friend of mine and asked him, ‘Do you know when World Book Day is celebrated?’  ‘Who celebrates it?’  he asked in reply.

On reflection, that seemed the right answer to the question.  In a world where reading is fast disappearing, how does it matter when World Book Day is celebrated?  ‘My only books,’ said Thomas Moore in the nineteenth century, ‘were women's looks, and folly's all they've taught me.’  A modern Moore may mourn: ‘My only books are the box's looks, and folly's all they've taught me.’

To be fair, however, there are readers and readers.  For some, reading is a pleasure.  I know a number of die-hard book-lovers who have grown up on grandmother's tales, on adventure stories, and on such all-time favourites as Dickens, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and P G Wodehouse – and, of course, on the unavoidable (and inevitable!) Shakespeare and Shaw.  They can read Macaulay and Gibbon with as much interest and excitement as they can R L Stevenson and P G Wodehouse.  They wouldn't wax eloquent on their reading like Francis Bacon (‘Reading maketh a full man’); they read for the simple reason that it gives them pleasure.

For some, reading is a kind of penance.  It is because they read books either in the hope of gaining some knowledge or for practical purposes, such as writing an examination.  I know a person who looks at every new book with suspicion and wonders if it is good value for money and time.

There is a third group that consists of people who love books, who want to be able to say that they have read all the books worth reading, but who never manage to read any books.  Typical of the "reading" style of this group is what a fellow teacher living in Chennai does: she goes to the British Council Library and borrows five attractive-looking books which have just entered the library, keeps them for a fortnight and then returns them unread. 

Readers, pseudo-readers, and non-readers – well, it takes all sorts to make a world. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Some little known facts about exams

Here we go again! Summer has arrived, and so have testing times. There will be examinations galore till the end of this month.  No, the ordeal will continue till the end of May because once college or university exams are over, there will be entrance exams of all kinds with little respite for students till colleges reopen in June. And exams in India are a terrible torment, given that, by and large, they are memory-oriented and content-based. As a student, I hated taking exams. And, now, as a teacher, I give exams. It's indeed one of life's little ironies! 

But I must remind myself that this post shouldn't be a diatribe against exams; it should be serious, responsible and useful. A friend brought his child to me and asked me to give her some tips -- some "inside information," as he called it -- for tackling exams. I did so with a straight face keeping in mind the key expression, inside information.

Inside information.  I liked that phrase.  As an insider, I know a thing or two about my fellow-insiders – the people who set exams and mark answers.  Knowing what kind of people they are and what will be acceptable to them will go a long way towards your securing a high score, even if you have a wonderful memory, which is basically what is tested in examinations in this country.

Examiners like neat writing.  If you have a good hand, you certainly have an advantage (not just an edge) over people whose answers are as good – or as bad – as yours.  This I discovered even as an outsider forty-three years ago.  I hadn’t expected to get more than 80 per cent in history and geography in my SSLC examination.  But I got 92 – the highest in the state of Tamil Nadu.  The extra 12, I’m sure, was for my handwriting.

Secondly, a typical examiner is a stick-in-the-mud.  So, you would do well to take the old line.  For instance, if, in the English exam, you are given the sentence, “It is me”, for correction, correct it as ‘It is I”; don’t write that there is no error in the sentence.  I know that you have heard native English people say, “It’s me” on BBC, HBO and sundry other channels, including some of our own like NDTV, CNN IBN and Times Now.  But the problem is that your examiners don’t seem to watch these channels.  In fact, “It is me” is as old as Shakespeare: in Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew says, “That’s me, I warrant you.”  Today, if someone is quirky enough to say, “It is I”, we must insist that he say, “Whither goest thou?” instead of “Where are you going?”  But the English teacher and the grammar book he has prescribed are quirky enough to believe that “It is I” is the correct form.  But give them what they want; the game you are playing in those three hours is a numbers game after all.

Thirdly, examiners love length.  If the word limit prescribed for an essay is 200 words, don't be so stupid as to use just 200 words and disappoint your examiner.  Use at least 300.  My wife often tells me that, during a meal, when I say, 'Enough,' I actually mean, 'Some more.' So is it in exams. The more, the merrier.

Fourthly, if you don’t know the answer to a question and decide to waffle away, be sensible at least in your first paragraph.  Once I evaluated a script which had tolerable first paragraphs with trash in the rest.  Curiosity led me to go in search of the earlier years’ scripts of the same student. (It's possible in an autonomous college.)  Decorated trash – that’s what I found in them: the scoundrel had got it down to a fine art.  And the rubbish had been ticked and given high marks!