Soundings was a sensation of Irish publishing two years ago. The Leaving Cert poetry anthology, long gone the way of the dodo, was swept from the shelves on its return to publication by people eager to reconnect. It was never entirely clear what it was the wanted to reconnect with – the Great Tradition, their lost youth, a Christmas present list run out of control – but Soundings touched a chord deep in the Irish nation. It is a beautiful book, and it really did make a magical present.
The publication last year of the Inter Cert short story anthology, Exploring English 1, was a little too obviously a rip-off for people to take. It was branded a little too much like the re-issued Soundings, with the cod drawings on the front and all, for people not to get a strong smell of old rope.
But then there was Deirdre Madden’s All About Home Economics. It had no connection for the Western Canon, and it didn’t have a pithy introduction by Joe O’Connor. Yet still it stormed off the shelves. Yes, there was charitable donation for the royalties, but that alone can’t explain the book’s success.
Nor can it explain the success down the years of the original Strunk and White or Waterhouse on Newspaper Style, when people bound photocopies of the original lecture notes and passed them about like contraband while the original texts were out of print.
The majority of textbooks are dull and workmanlike affairs. Some are just plain bad. But there are those which are transcendent, that bring the student to a world he or she could never have dreamed off. These are the textbooks that are loved almost as if they were actual people, because these are the books that have made people what they are.
One of the things about love is that you can never rent it. It has been bought, down through the years, but it has never been rented. Which sad truth makes the current small news story, lost in the empty bellowing of the referendum campaigners, all the sadder.
The Department of Education released a report yesterday claiming “Book rental schemes in schools could reduce family bills for school books by as much as 80%.” The Department is missing the point.
If you’re a disadvantaged child, your only hope of escape is through education. There is none other. If you’re going to be good as a student, you have to love your books, and how can you love something that you have to give back at the end of the year?
By imposing a book rental scheme the Department is subtly hinting that all this is a bit of a cod, really. We’re going to go through the motions for you Johnny, because we don’t want to be shamed on Prime Time, but once the school year is over we’re taking back our books and throwing you back to your damned flats.
Colm Toibín wrote a nonsensical piece in the Guardian recently claiming that it is an insult in Ireland to say that someone’s house had no books. That has never been an insult in Ireland, but Ireland would be better if it were.
If the Department of Education wanted to do those kids a favour they’d tell them to keep the books. They’d tell those kids that these aren’t books – these are magic carpets that can fly you to another world, way out of here, where you can make something of yourself and be all that you can be.
Would it cost money? Of course it’d cost money. But there’s always money. There are lots of subventions in education as it is. You can cut one to give to another. There are always ways.
Those cocktail making courses that were part of the Springboard initiative would be no great loss. Or how about the state subvention to private schools? I’m sure a bit of belt-tightening would do no harm there in these austere times. There are always ways to turn a shilling when you need it.
And these disadvantaged kids need it, because education is their only hope. Their only hope. What the Department has to realise at a very fundamental level is that education is the only thing that can save kids on the margins, and education can only come through school and schoolbooks.
If you want kids to love education, they have to love the books. And if they love the books, they can’t give them up at the end of the school year. They have to keep them and treasure them and know that they and they alone are the key to escape.
All that forcing children to give up their schoolbooks does is tell those children is that they’ve never been part of process, that this is all for show. That the world of books is only for those who can afford them, and not for those who just want to live a better world. And that’s a poor policy for any country.