OK, CLASS, we’re studying civics. And we’re in a book festival, so we all like books, and would like everyone to like them too, right?
Even poor people. Maybe especially poor people, or at least their children: no books in the house, feckless parents, closing libraries, all of that. So what’s wrong with paying disadvantaged children to read books? Maybe 50p a time? Worth at least considering?
The teacher on the main stage at the book festival is Michael Sandel, Harvard prof, 2009’s leading American public intellectual and according to China Newsweek in 2010 “the most influential foreign figure of the year”, so class is packed, right up to the sweaty seats at the back. But because most of the students know that his latest book is called The Moral Limits of Markets, they’ve probably got a good idea that he thinks paying poor kids to read is a Bad Thing.
Bettina (seventh row on the right) thinks it would reduce their self-discipline and self-esteem. Alistair (tenth row back, on the left) disagrees. Let’s see the evidence for the study, he says. Perhaps the kids might actually learn to love reading. David (up in the sweaty seats) disagrees. Enough of your gimcrack Socratic dialogue, he says (I paraphrase: this is Edinburgh so he was more polite), we want to hear what you think.
Me, I’d beg to differ. I loved the unpatronising elegance with which Sandel handled the audience to trot through his thesis that over the last 30 years we have drifted from being a market economy to a market society where everything (human kidneys, for example) is up for sale, that this ultimately weakens the social glue that binds us all together. Because as he explained his case (even daring to use arguments that seem to go against it) he did what the best teachers do: he made the class think.
Earlier, the day had got off to a great start with Tessa Hadley and Sarah Hall making a convincing case for the allusiveness of the short story. Writing them while also working on a novel, said Hadley, was like going off on a camping holiday, leaving behind a house with unfinished building work. Whereas so much of novel writing is about engineering – making sure that the edifice actually stands up – short stories have, with their different challenges of intensity, economy and pacing, the ability to be haunt the readers’ mind. Why, then, are short stories less popular than novels? At the front of the class, one bright pupil had a possible answer: “Because when they arrive at the end, they don’t want to be haunted. They want answers.”
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 24 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 5 C to 13 C
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Wind direction: North east