What's religion got to do with reading?

19th August 2005 at 01:00
When my novel is finally published I am going to try hard to get the Vatican to come out against it. Two of the most widely sold authors in the world today have had that dubious privilege.

The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter have both stirred the ire of the prelates in the Vatican (so far, admittedly, the HP denunciation is only alleged). According to the BBC News website, Cardinal Bertoni even hosted a seminar to rebut the claims made in the Da Vinci Code (although things have gone even further since then to the extent that on the Catholic website www. life4seekers.co.uk there is a link to something entitled "freebies for the Da Vinci Code enthusiasts" which provides resources containing "accurate information about St Mary Magdalene").

Apparently some years ago Pope Benedict XV1, then Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote to the German author Gabriele Kuby that the Harry Potter stories "have a profound effect and can corrupt the Christian faith in souls".

Where does it all stop? When will we get a declaration on the immorality of Goldilocks - a robber guilty of breaking and entering and yet regarded as a heroine by children around the globe? Or Snow White, who left home at an early age because of abuse by her stepmother and avoided homelessness by living with seven miners and becoming their slave?

Or the woman who reneged on the deal she made with Rumpelstiltskin and is feted as a bully-vanquisher when all he did was to request that she honour her promise?

All of this lot are a crowd of ne'er-do-wells who have somehow come out pure as the driven snow. Why? Because they are not real. They are characters in stories. And human beings have been telling stories about goodies and baddies and their inter-relation since the beginning of time.

It is part of the human condition. We need stories and storytelling.

For many years I was head of English at a large comprehensive school. For me, the most important part of my teaching was to encourage children to read.

Every lesson started with 10 minutes' reading. We discussed books endlessly with the children. We reviewed children's literature and we read what they were reading. We had book reports that parents had to sign, we sent letters home with booklists so that parents would know what to buy or borrow. We even sent letters home begging parents to take computers and televisions out of children's bedrooms (not much success with that one).

I think the message got through over the years. Pupils became aware of the importance of reading - not only to exercise their imagination and widen their knowledge but also to increase their vocabulary, improve their spelling and, most importantly, to make them interested and interesting people.

And then Philip Pullman arrived, followed by JK Rowling. Pupils were saving up pocket money to buy books. They were queuing outside bookshops at midnight waiting for the latest installment of the Harry Potter saga.

True to my credo, I read the books and they do not do anything for me. But they are not written for me. What was wonderful was that children of all ages and abilities were reading. We were elated.

Then, on one memorable open evening, a woman sought me out to enquire whether we were teaching HP. I told her that we weren't.

"Thank goodness," she said. "I will not have my children reading it." I asked her why. "Because it's evil," she said. "It's about the supernatural and the forces of evil."

"OK," I said. "But, although we don't teach Harry Potter, we do teach Macbeth, so you may not find this school suitable." She laughed gaily.

But that is it, you see. It is inconsistent. If HP is to be banned then, logically, so must a lot of Shakespeare and most of the fairy tales, A Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Pied Piper of Hamelin, Star Wars, and so on.

Perhaps we should concern ourselves more with computer games - solitary children sitting in darkened bedrooms bloodily disposing of virtual enemies is far more sinister than any HP novel.

When I was young, there was, for Catholics, something called the Index.

This was a list of books that Catholics were not allowed to read on pain of commiting fairly serious sin.

I read one of those books when I was a teenager. It was called The Three Musketeers. Apparently it was on the Index because duelling was frowned upon.

Shortly after that the Index was dumped. Enlightened clerics, inspired by the basic common sense of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, realised that ignorance is not innocence and that children must learn to choose good.

Are we travelling backwards? It is worrying.

Jennifer Baker is a freelance writer and part-time supply teacher

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