My Private Collection Under the Desk Drawer, or, The Purloined Pleasures of Reading

Zoe is a current MPhil student on the children’s literature course. She enjoys reading and writing stories.

Note: I wrote this blog entry while rereading my Essay 1. This short reflective piece addresses some of the thoughts that I would very much like to put in my essay if I had more time and a larger word count.

 

As a child, I always had a book hidden somewhere: under my pillows, beneath my crumpled T-shirts, behind the bathroom door, and between the navy-blue layers of my schoolbag—as I firmly believed that a book must be well-hidden in order to avoid persecution from adults. While I preferred to hide my books in different places (mainly in order to lower the risks of exposure), I also managed to save a corner for my personal collection of ‘banned books’ inside my desk drawers at home and at school. These corners were, unsurprisingly, dark, narrow, dusty and moldy. As a result, my books were usually covered in sawdust, smeared with dirt and milk stains, and emitted a curious smell of orange pips and melted chocolate. The pages became dogged-eared and sometimes torn, not because I ran my fingers on them often, but because I had to perform a routine task of thrusting them into of my drawers at light speed. I believe I must have been quite good at this particular practice, for my hidden collection was never once discovered by my parents or teachers.

My forbidden library started with a palm-sized magazine named ‘Story Collections’ (《故事会》). It was a popular magazine with miscellaneous contents, including jokes, Chinese folktales, foreign stories, and short stories depicting contemporary Chinese social life and popular culture. I first discovered it in a newsagent’s shop on the way to school. When my Chinese teacher saw me sniggering behind this magazine at recess, she snatched it away and sternly pointed out that stories in this magazine are ‘not fit for a primary school student’ and ‘of low taste’, affording no aesthetic or educational value whatsoever. My parents agreed likewise and ordered me to return to my textbooks immediately. However, entranced by the gripping conflicts in the adult world and the outlandish spaces of adventure in these stories, I started hoarding the magazines inside my desk drawers. Safely surrounded by a stack of textbooks, exercise papers and notebooks, my precious collection survived under the prying eyes of the adults, and was left to prosper on its own.

Zoe1
A student reading comic books in class [1]
From that day onwards, I gradually created my own private and public library, and perhaps also, a library in between. The public library was to be displayed and appraised. Neatly poised on my school desk or on my bookshelf at home, the books were under critical scrutiny of my superiors. They were mostly textbooks, exercise books with exam-related contents, and world classics listed in the curriculum only. The private library consisted of an array of popular novels, comics and magazines considered ‘inappropriate for children’, and should therefore be firmly concealed behind buttressed walls. The library in between embraced a broader collection. Some books in this library included world classics, but they were frowned upon by adults for their obscure descriptions of sex. They may be allowed to exist in remote corners of the desk, behind comfy cushions on the armchair, or under scattered telephone books on the night table. However, if such books were to increase in number, they would risk being ‘interrogated’ and ‘disposed of’ in the end. Other books ranged from international best-selling children’s books to popular children’s series fiction, which were allowed but nonetheless secondary compared to curriculum readings.

At the same time, I was beginning to lead a double life as a reader. In front of my teachers, I opened up my textbooks and recited with pious devotion. When my teachers left the classroom, I quickly groped inside my drawers for the most recent issue of ‘Story Collections’ and placed them on my lap. The same thing happened at home. Growing up, I always knew when I had to ‘perform’ reading, and when I could truly ‘enjoy’ reading. In many cases, reading could be an undercover operation. One must observe the surroundings carefully and wait until the coast is clear, before discreetly fishing out the book from its hiding place. While reading, one must also remain highly vigilant, lest a ‘well-meaning’ adult might jump on you and confiscate the book once and for all. A teacher was entitled to confiscate almost anything back then, from a ‘bad book’ to a chewing gum.

Despite being ‘closely monitored’ as a child reader, I found great pleasure in breaking the rules and secretly reading something that I was not supposed to be reading. I call it the ‘purloined pleasures’ of reading precisely because such pleasures resulted from periods of ‘stolen’ reading hours, and from stacks of ‘stolen materials’ that would have otherwise been inaccessible to me. Having been brought up in an educational system where curriculum reading is highly valued, and where parents and teachers habitually interfere with a child’s reading choices, I was luckily able to freely read almost anything that interested me. The experience of encountering a rich pool of texts inspired my early passion in writing stories, leading me to construct an identity as a young author and storyteller.

Sometimes we may be surprised by how children love to read their chosen books in lone, private spaces. Jane Eyre, for example, admired Bewick’s History of British Birds behind ‘the red moreen curtains’ at Reed House, where she was ‘shrined in double retirement’[2]; in The Neverending Story, Bastion stole the magical book and began reading it in the school attic; and in The Book Thief, Liesel stole The Grave Digger’s Handbook, hid it under her mattress and observed it secretly when no one was around. As for me, I remember reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover under my bedcovers when I was thirteen, with my one arm almost numb from holding the flashlight. Such secret hideaways may not always seem like a comfortable place to read, yet these are unsanctioned spaces where a child consciously and independently develops his or her personal reading preferences. These spaces belong to the child and the child only, representing, to a certain extent, an aspect of childhood experience that would always remain elusive to the adult.

JaneEyre
Jane Eyre reading behind the curtains [3]
After graduating from high school, I gathered all the books in my private library and put them in a huge storage box. With the College Entrance Exams out of the way, my teachers and parents no longer cared what I read. Reading no longer had to be done in secret. I was understandably relieved, but a little sad as well—sad, because the purloined pleasures of reading would, from then on, be inevitably harder to obtain. Although I now have very dim memories of the actual contents of the books in my private collection, I clearly recall the nervous excitement running through my veins when I read them, and the frequent travelling of my gaze from the story-laden page to the classroom door.

At this point, you may be tempted to ask: as a child, have I never read or enjoyed any book in a proper manner? I have indeed, and those were equally wonderful memories. Yet somehow, I find it important to acknowledge the ‘darker’, or, to use a better word, ‘unregulated’ moments in my reading history. Sometimes those unregulated aspects of childhood reading—the secret collections and purloined pleasures—can prove equally crucial to shaping a child’s literacy development and creative consciousness. To some extent, the existence of a child’s secret library constantly reminds us of the gap between what we think children should read, and what they actually choose to read. It also pushes us to acknowledge the wide spectrum of texts that is available to a child reader, many of which lie outside the treasured garden of the children’s literature canon, beyond the rigorous framework of academic inquiry. In fact, however clearly we think we know about children, children’s reading and children’s literature, there will always be something beyond our grasp, something waiting to be uncovered and explored. This is perhaps why I always consider children’s literature an inexhaustible fountain, a forever running spring brimming with the delicious invitation for new knowledge and understanding.

 


[1] Image retrieved from: https://image.baidu.com/search/detail?z=0&ipn=d&word=上课偷偷看书&step_word=&hs=0&pn=1&spn=0&di=34500771360&pi=&tn=baiduimagedetail&is=0%2C0&istype=2&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&cs=1520105078%2C3874635028&os=3480736507%2C2169860275&simid=&adpicid=0&lpn=0&fm=&sme=&cg=&bdtype=0&simics=478575346%2C1175566583&oriquery=&objurl=https%3A%2F%2Ftimgsa.baidu.com%2Ftimg%3Fimage%26quality%3D80%26size%3Db10000_10000%26sec%3D1513989792%26di%3D2b4d59e67683103331753d6d75a1a4ba%26src%3Dhttp%3A%2F%2Fimg7.itiexue.ne

[2] Brontë, C. (2006). Jane Eyre. Edited with an introduction and notes by Stevie Davies. London: Penguin.

[3] Image retrieved from: https://jmillwanders.com/2014/10/02/jane-eyre-read-along-update-one/

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