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How Pinocchio Learned to Read by Alberto Manguel

Pinocchio is Italian, and so was my breakfast… Martina Franca, Italy, 2021.

Today I read an essay by the Argentinian writer Alberto Manguel called How Pinocchio Learned to Read. The Pinocchio who Manguel describes is the original, the Italian Carlos Collodi version, the fairy-tale before it was adapted for modern sensibilities. Pinocchio is brash, rebellious and the cause of anxiety for his creator, yet endeavours to make up for his failings by attending school and learning to read.

I like Manguel’s essays in the collection A Reader on Reading which I am currently going through. Each begins with a quote from Lewis Carrol’s Alice, and Manguel frequently refers to moments from Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass to reveal his trail of thought. This essay, as the title suggests, uses Pinocchio as a device, as an example, for talking about that tricky process of learning to read, and in doing so, this provides Manguel with the space to critic the teaching of this valuable skill.

Learning to read is hard. I have students who on first glance, look over a text, recognise the majority of the individual words and project onto them a meaning which portends to have sense. They read by intelligent guesswork. They devour something of the meaning, but the meaning is often one created by themselves, and on closer inspection, is a major deviation from the text. Phrasal verbs trip them up, as do nouns that look like verbs, and words which hold multiple meanings. False friends, those which are similar or identical to Spanish words, but which have a different meaning are particularly deceptive – words like ‘actual’ which so many Spanish speakers mistake for ‘current’. It’s not enough to recognise the words, sometimes it’s not even enough to understand their dictionary definition. Yesterday I argued with a student who was happy that a boot was a boot, and a shoe was a shoe, but my walking boots, he adamantly declared, were shoes.

The Latin expression ‘per ardua ad astra,’ ‘through difficulties we reach the stars,’ is almost incomprehensible for Pinocchio (as for us) since everything is expected to be obtainable with the least possible expenditure.

How Pinocchio Learned to Read, Alberto Manguel

When students start learning English, they are full of energy, focused on an illusion of fluency, which they believe they will inevitably arrive at through the process of turning up for classes. Students who have multiple lessons a week start to complain about being tired after a fortnight. They slot classes into their lives, without considering how draining learning a language will be, and exhaustion bleeds out from the scheduled hour into the rest of their day. Their minds start cataloguing words in English, even when they are not in class, and while their life continues in front of them, their brain is playing with English phonemes in the background. Learning a language is difficult, more difficult than most things in life. We don’t remember how hard, or frustrating learning to communicate was the first time around. We tend not to recall the challenge of learning to read. Most likely we burst into tears with tiredness and frustration of a multitude of occasions. We erroneously assume children have it easy.

Bullshit. It’s easier to teach an adult: adults realise that they are responsible for their learning, they understand why they are learning, they are more likely to invest in techniques which suit them personally, they know what they are sacrificing (an hour in bed, an hour with their children), they have a much stronger understanding of the world and so absorb cultural differences more easily, they recognise their strengths and weaknesses and know that they have to work on both. Some teenagers are like this too, but more frequently teenagers have bigger anxiety challenges and aren’t so clear on their goals. With adults, the bigger challenge is keeping their ambition in check. They want to be fluent yesterday.

The rewards, the stars we reach, become obvious over time. Students who study attentively, for long enough, soften in attitude, they become gentler on themselves, as if more aware of the true challenge they’ve undertaken, and they start to strategize. During the first few weeks, a student may declare a vague preference for conversation, but in time this gets replaced with the series of childlike – Why? Why? Why? – questions which centre on the patterns and grammar of the language they’re using (but never pages of grammar exercises). When they are tired – sick children, late nights, stress at work – they revert back to fluid, easy going conversation and ask fewer questions. When they are alert, they seek to develop their skills by pushing themselves towards a slower, more accurate speech and spend more time thinking about the words they say.

Pinocchio will only learn if he is not in a hurry to learn, and will only become a full individual through the effort required to learn slowly.

How Pinocchio Learned to Read, Alberto Manguel

But Manguel has little faith in Pinocchio’s teachers, they might teach him the alphabet, and to read political slogans and advertisements, to be ‘superficially literate’… but what about real-world literacy, what about developing his own understanding, his own opinions and perspective on the world? Manguel points out that although Pinocchio turns into a boy, inevitably his schooling still leaves him thinking like a puppet.

Why I read

What’s beyond? Moon Valley, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, 2020. 

This lockdown is proving tedious.

I’m not used to winter and what with having the kitchen light on to see my boiled egg in the morning and then the sun setting halfway through the afternoon, I’m despairing from the lack of sunshine. I’m like a bird in a cage having an angry rant at its reflection in its plastic mirror. If I’m not careful, I’ll fracture my beak.

Luckily though, dear Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and I’m one of the fortunate people in this world with an ample supply of books.

Reading is my coping strategy for most problems

Everyone has coping strategies, otherwise we wouldn’t survive, and reading is quite an acceptable one as far as things go. It doesn’t poison your lungs, damage your liver or play havoc with your cholesterol. If anything being well-read is applauded. As a reader, you learn, you build awareness of the world and tend not to upset people in the process.

Still, being that it is a coping strategy, it’s worth thinking about. People have been known to comment upon my nomadic lifestyle as ‘running away’, but escaping into a book, even if you haven’t moved, is just another form of escape. Escape is sometimes necessary. Sometimes you have to pull yourself away from a situation and hide as a form of self-protection. If I’m angry and upset, I sometimes don’t trust myself to be the kind and loving person I would like myself to be. I crawl into my chrysalis and, a novel later, re-emerge as a much nicer human being. Yet you can’t live in a chrysalis and the emergence after an initial escape is essential if the ‘coping’ isn’t going to leave a trail of additional damage.

Reading might, by itself be a good, wholesome activity, so I believe is eating chocolate. No need to point out that there is a limit of how much chocolate I should consume. Sooner or later, if I eat too much, I’ll be sick. Or over a prolonged period I might notice an increase in my waistline. Hence, I don’t gorge on chocolate, I choose a chocolate or two, take care of my choices, limit my intake and focus on quality over quantity. Reading doesn’t make you fat, you might argue. However, an hour reading is a choice to separate yourself from society. You live the lives of other people, fictional or real, or perhaps get advice from world experts who you otherwise wouldn’t be able to learn from, but still, it’s a solitary activity and going to a book for your answers means you aren’t going to the friends and family around you, the real people in your life who might be able to help you in a very real way. They at least have ears to listen with.

Emotional struggles aren’t the only reason I read

My struggle to consolidate the complex emotions that the gods have given me isn’t my only motivation to turn to a book. When I was twenty years old I learnt that there had been this thing called the British Empire. It happened within a few days during an eventful summer: a Ugandan chap, an Egyptian fellow and a guy from Hong Kong provided me with new information which illuminated the depths of my ignorance.

Sometimes you realize that you aren’t equipped to deal with what life throws at you. Some people move in a straight line, fulfilling their plans and hitting their goals, driven by ‘what next’. You follow the map, textbooks, management books, leadership, knowledge, wisdom. If, however, you lurch around in a nomadic fashion, crashing into different cultures as you go, you might find that the question ‘what next’ is never answered because you never get beyond the initial ‘why’.

Or to put it another way, one minute I think I’ve got my life organized, the next, soldiers line the streets and to understand why I dive into books. My lack of understanding of my environment hangs awkwardly in my line of sight. I dent my forehead anew on its shiny surface each time I step off a plane.

My learning style suits books. Typically, I’m not an auditory learner, I am terrible at remembering song lyrics for example, but I’m a quick reader and can assimilate the words on the page of a book into concepts to bury into my brain with ease. I might not recall dates or names, but conflict, tension and story I do.

There is a lot I would like to learn.

I cannot explain why I write, but I do know reading is necessary for it

Orwell in his essay ‘Why I Write’ fails at the same question. He’s eloquent in describing what he writes, and he describes the motivations that drive writers to their choices: the ego, aesthetics, historical documentation or political statement. Yet he fails to clarify why the medium has to be the written word. Why journalism and novels rather than paint and brushes? He acknowledges that storytelling exists as something innate inside him… the words revolving around the lonely child’s head twisted and turned until they sprawled out on the page. But why?

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

George Orwell, Why I Write

I can say that writing, regardless of publication or money, matters to me more than almost anything else; I can’t say why. Furthermore, I have that awkward desire that I not only write, but that I write well. I don’t expect perfection from myself, but I do expect something crafted with care and thought through.

And it should be obvious to anyone who has ever contemplated improving their writing that to write well it’s necessary to read well.

Of course, my obsession has a downside

It would be fair to say that there are more socially beneficial ways for me to spend my life, there are definitely more economically productive endeavours. Especially when one considers that the majority of my writing revolves around me. Indeed, if we head back to Orwell’s suggestions of what motivates writers to write what they write, I’m steered by my ego’s emotional frustrations with our world.

You could claim that I could be doing something less solitary and more involved with other people if I wasn’t so insistent on writing, but all I can think is that if I didn’t write I wouldn’t know how to process anything and all that evil which builds up inside would erupt. Some people talk about the heart as the place of feeling; I’m convinced that for me it’s the fingertips. My hand curls around the pen or my fingers slam down on the plastic keys. Here are my emotions.

For me, life becomes real when I write it. What I don’t write is erased by the winds of oblivion. I forget a lot, my mind betrays me. I can’t recall places, names, dates, or faces, but I never forget a good story or a significant dream. Writing is a silent introspection, a journey to the dark caverns of memory and the soul. Fiction, like memory, moves from revelation to revelation.

Isabel Allende, Why I Write

But during this challenging winter, I’m grateful to have so many books to hand

Sometimes I need to escape, sometimes my family needs me to escape so that I’m bearable company, and sometimes I need a sense that I’m learning something, that things are progressing, and that I will come out of this experience with something to show for it.

Hopefully, reading will also help me learn to write better, that ethereal dream.

Books I finished reading in March

They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

Ok, this is a lie. I finished The Consolations of Philosophy on the 1st of April, on the drive home. The first time I’ve listened to an audiobook in the car. Otherwise my March reading has been conducted as if on a constant caffeine high. A stack of books sit on my shelves, half finished. And going to Portugal meant I switched back to the books on my e-reader, none of which I finished as I leapt from book to book. To have multiple books on the go is normal for me, but not quite so many.

Do you read one book at once or dip into many?

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

Audiobook borrowed from the library.

I’m almost annoyed that I listened to this book, because I haven’t taken any notes and have no quotes to refer to. It was a book full of beautiful quotable passages.

My knowledge of philosophy is limited. There’s a vast amount of terminology which as combinations of letters I feel a familiarity to. But as concepts, these are alien. I have recently given up on a weighty introductory volume to a variety of different philosophers deciding it was inaccessible (I’d rather blame the writers than myself). Philosophy I figure is one of those topics, like politics, which will open to me when I am ancient. By which point it will be too late.

However, Alain de Botton gives me hope. I understand his sentences, and the images and examples he uses are relatable. Having read the consolations, and heard a little about the variety of tragic lives the philosophers themselves lead, I’ve developed an itch to read more. Particularly, Epicurus (I’m curious about his ideas of the necessity of community in achieving happiness) and Nietzsche (who is of the opinion that you can’t feel pleasure without being willing to feel pain).

“…no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfilment.”

Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn

I keep returning to mindfulness and meditation. And then, because I’m human, things get out of shape. My mind straps itself in on the nearest rollercoaster ride and I forget who’s driving the machinery. Me.

Reading over the concepts, again and again helps. When reading about mindfulness, I calm down and become focused. It makes me think, yes, maybe I should sit down, cross-legged and do the whole following your breath thing. Even though my breath is following my thoughts and my thoughts are galloping off like a child who’s eaten a whole packet of jelly babies without sharing. I know being mindful is good for me (and for the people who put up with me). It’s just hard to do.

“At the same time, the work of cultivating mindfulness is also play. It is far too serious to be taken seriously – and I say this in all seriousness – if for no other reason that it’s really about our entire life.”

The Mulberry Empire by Philip Hensher

For the charity shop box.

It had a slow start, got a little better when some characters did something more than sit around waiting to have a conversation and, for a moment, it looked like it was going to go somewhere… which turned out to be a long and irrelevant tangent which appeared to have absolutely no relevance to the rest of the story. Disappointing.

It ended on the massacre of an army of 16,000. By this point my investiture in the characters was empty (especially the women). The ones who remained alive seemed ridiculous. It was like it was written by someone who had learnt about loss in the dictionary.

That said, some of the writing was pretty. If it had been given a plot, not just a series of historical events, it might have been a good book.

What’ve you been reading?

The books I finished reading in January

James Allen Kaleidoscope quote

What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey

Borrowed from The Mother.

I’ve learned from my experiences of getting sucked into other people’s ego dysfunction that their darkness robs you of your own light – the light you need to be yourself for others.

What I Know For Sure is a collection of short pieces written by Oprah Winfrey that are meant to guide you around the core components of living contently.

This was one of those books that I enjoyed tremendously, much more than I rationally thought I should. It gave me a beautiful sense of assuredness, a few techniques for thinking about my dysfunctions and niggles more productively, and an admiration for Winfrey.

One of the lines that really stuck was the suggestion to ask yourself: what am I afraid of?

Asking myself this question, and forcing myself to be specific about my answers, seems to be poison for fear. Each time I ask, I find it harder and harder to answer the question. The fears I have seem weak and silly. There are many things I don’t want to happen, but few that to think of instil a physical apprehension.

I guess I am blessed.

Think!: Before It’s Too Late by Edward De Bono

According to Edward De Bono, all our thinking is ‘excellent, but not enough’.

Clearly this chap is a genius. He tells you often. And it seems to make sense to me that rather that bumble along in our ignorant and repetitive manner we would benefit from fine tuning our thinking skills and broadening our thinking techniques. Society, after all, is ‘excellent, but not enough’.

And yet, I can’t stand his writing. If I had been reading this book – which I wasn’t, I was listening to it as an audiobook library loan – I would never have got to the end.

So, I’m at a tricky point. My options are ‘excellent, but not enough’. I really am intrigued about his ideas… which are used by so and so Noble prize winners, governments, geniuses etc. But at the same time, I really want a less ‘me, me, me’ book to access them from.

I have De Bono’s ‘A Beautiful Mind’ on my bookshelf. It’s borrowed from one parent or other, and I’ve been meaning to read it for years (I’m sure it tells me things are ‘excellent, but not enough’), yet I failed to get into it last time I tried. Now I’m intrigued by the content again, but I’m afraid of the anger the writing is inevitably going to induce.

Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housen

Borrowed from The Mother.

Each chapter of this book starts with a poem that the author believes illuminates a fundamental component of the experience of living. Now, I’m not exactly a person who’s experienced in poetry. It took me a bit of time to get into the flow of the dancing metaphors and imagery that made up Roger Housten’s style of writing. The first chapter was ok. The second chapter felt beguiling to me. And then at some point I suddenly began to feel like I was being carried through a story. Through a series of expressions that made me think of this book of poems as a step-sister of the self-help books I read last year.

My favourite of the poems was ‘Love after love’ by Derek Walcott.

The Brain Audit by Sean D’Souza

I’ve read a lot of stuff on marketing. After university, when I first went into digital marketing, I kept a list of marketing terms stuck to my desk because everything I read would involve all these terms that being a physics graduate I just didn’t know.

It was an intense self-education. I watched videos, listened to podcasts, downloaded reports and scoured through blog posts trying to work out what I was supposed to be doing. Marketing, I learnt, is a time suck.

Unsurprisingly, from my position in the middle of an open office, I found myself intrigued by a marketing podcast called the ‘three-month vacation’. What I really wanted to be doing was travelling, so it called to me in a way that other podcasts didn’t. Podcasts stuffed with irrelevant small talk and laden with advertising don’t interest me.

So I listened. And I took notes. Notes including how to research, how to name your products and how to pronounce ‘himalayas’: ‘Hi-MAH-li-ahs’. And eventually I bought myself the book.

Where I discovered that, like Dale Carnegie in ‘How to Win Friends and Influence people’, Sean  believes his book is so vital that he advises his readers to go through it a minimum of three times. I have. Which tells you a lot about the book and probably something about me too.

As A Man Thinketh by James Allen (1902)

Downloaded for free from the Gutenberg project.

“The world is your kaleidoscope, and the varying combinations of colours which at every succeeding moment it presents to you are the exquisitely adjusted pictures of your ever-moving thoughts.”

Whilst reading about marketing, I came across a link to a very small self-help book, written in 1902 by an English chap called James Allen.

The point that gets reiterated from the title to the close is that your thoughts make you who you are. You are what you think.

I began thinking, if indeed ‘man is the master of thought, the moulder of character, and the maker and shaper of condition, environment, and destiny’, then rigorously excluding negative feeling should be a doddle. I nod as I read, yes, ‘doubts and fears should be rigorously excluded.’


How many of us believe ourselves to be the masters of our thoughts, or the moulders of our own character. A disciplined monk perhaps, but not me. I am very much an apprentice of thought and a mostly willing participant in the moulding of my own character. Like sitting at the pottery wheel, feeling the smooth wet clay shaping beneath the gentle pressure of my fingertips. Sometimes it feels effortless. I am in control. Then the clay flops, or slides out, my finger pokes through and mud splatters on the wall.

I Wrote This For You: Just The Words by Iain S. Thomas (a.k.a. pleasefindthis)

Borrowed from Midget.

Poetry. Although, not exactly what I would call poetry. Poetic writings perhaps, some poems, some musings. Some words to make you cold inside, inspire a glow to your cheeks, or remind you of that torturous feeling of loss.

Somehow hauntingly beautiful.

Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf (1938)

The Mother gave me this book, along with ‘A Room of One’s Own’ which I also remember enjoying.

Consider next time you drive along a country road the attitude of a rabbit caught in the glare of a head-lamp – its glazed eyes, its rigid paws. Is there not good reason to think without going outside our own country, that the ‘attitudes’, the false and unreal positions taken by the human form in England as well as in Germany, are due to the limelight which paralyses the free action of the human faculties and inhibits the human power to change and create new wholes as much as a strong head-lamp paralyses the little creatures who run out of the darkness into its beams?

Virginia Woolf’s voice is opinionated, argumentative, stubborn and yet elegant. She’s fierce, but don’t we need to be. Don’t things need to be said, different things maybe from 1938 (or perhaps not), but said all the same? And doesn’t someone articulate need to be building these arguments, creating a momentum, challenging beliefs?

rabbit in head lamp
Does fear paralyse you, or make you act falsely?

I feel my writing is cowardly. I have opinions, but I am the rabbit caught in the glare of the head-lamp. Not wishing to say the wrong thing, I add unnecessary words like ‘perhaps, ‘maybe’, ‘might’.  Yet I’m also scared of being imprecise.

I’m not sure I know how to begin constructing such a wondrous argument. Especially one that can be admired for its depth and wit. But I enjoyed hers.

What have you read this January?