I am absolutely in disbelief that this is the fourth year of Bookstravaganza! When I look upon my last three Decembers and the one that approaches, I realize that in my life there are only two things in common between all four of them: Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, and I find myself reading as much as I can before the clock strikes twelve on December 31st.
Bookstravaganza has been a great tradition that has really made many of my Decembers so incredibly memorable. In 2012, I read Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms on a night train from Rome to Paris. In 2013, I read White Oleander by Jane Fitch while a white blizzard cascaded in front of my window in Edmonton, and a week later found myself reading The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham on a hot beach in Playa del Carmen. Last year, I curled up to a fireplace in Washington D.C. to listen to my housemate and newfound friend Burakhan read aloud to me the first page of Garry Will’s Lincoln at Gettysburg.
What does this tell me? Well certainly that I’m incredibly blessed to be able to travel as much as I do, but it also tells me how embedded the act of reading is in some of my fondest memories.
I’ll be going at a slower pace this year, as I’ve noticed a few others have decided also. We also have decided to work collectively on a goal, instead of against each other, a change that I’m all for in the spirit of collaboration and camaraderie. We are also donating to Edmonton Public Library’s Literacy Vans this year so more people can have better access to books and technology related to reading.
Now we’ve all heard the speech about improving literacy before — but can I just say as someone who is living in a country where most of signs and food labels and newspaper headlines are in a completely foreign language, I am truly realizing what a gift literacy is. But I’m also realizing more and more that being “literate” in a language should not been seen as marking a finishing point rather instead indicating an ongoing process. When do we really become literate? I admit I ask this a little exasperatedly as I contemplate learning Dutch (a language even the Dutch will tell you is pointless to learn right before going back to conversing amongst themselves in Dutch…) Is being literate the point when I am able to memorize all the nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, grammatical structures and verb conjugations? Is it when I look at these letters on the page long enough to understand a character’s memories, voice, or motivations? Or when I learn something new every time I flip a new page?
This journey of literacy, from when I grasped the meaning of a word on a page for the first time, to now, studying for a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies to understand why people kill other people (among many other things), has been an infinite journey for me. Literacy, I think for most people, it is the only way we can truly attain success: financially, socially, and intellectually.
Many readers will tell you that literacy also involves the language of the heart. I read earlier this year about a study where readers (of fiction in particular) were noted to have a wider capacity for feelings of empathy than a person who doesn’t read.
I think if I were to ask some of the Dutch people here about fluency and literacy in Dutch, they’d first tell me it’s pointless, but then if I were to bring up gezellig, they might have a different opinion. Gezellig (pronounced heh-SELL-ick): is an integral word of Dutch culture (right up there with lekker) but it’s one of those words without a suitable English translation. Many things are gezellig — my favourite cafe, Cafe De Pels, with its mahogany tables and dull incandescent lighting, is gezellig. An evening in with friends over homemade risotto is gezellig. Or a date night at a little cinema. Or a cup of Earl Grey tea with two cream. Or the hand-knitted scarf from your grandmother. Or playing Billie Holiday on vinyl.
This word is encompasses something like “cozy,” “quaint,” but also often a feeling of togetherness with loved ones. But you don’t need to be with someone to feel it. As a Canadian student without family here in Holland, I have latched onto a fondness for gezellig’s broader definition, which I think really just comes down to a feeling of a cozy wholeness, of not feeling alone, even if you are.
And many of my favourite Bookstravaganza memories — a cozy, dim bunk on a night train; watching a blizzard outside my bedroom window; a fire in a stone fireplace crackling at my feet — are gezellig. Books are magnets for gezellig. Even physically — and I think that’s the reason many people fight so hard against e-books because they like the feel of the paper while they read in the bath or the smell of the old books they find in second-hand stores. So while I read about gezellig and what it really means through words, I also get to physically feel it as I turn the pages and grip the cover. The stories we immerse ourselves in can be a greater company than the ongezellig (not gezellig) feeling of being surrounded by strangers in a shopping mall or dancing at a crowded night club.
With EPL’s project of creating more literacy vans, more people can get their hands on books and experience this feeling too. If people can’t even visit libraries because of their location or lack of transport, I can’t imagine how isolating it must feel to be alone without any book to keep you company. I’ve read in a study some shocking numbers about how many college graduates won’t read another book after they graduate college. I’ve heard it’s nearly half… If this is accurate, engaging in literacy isn’t just a risk for those who may have struggled to get their high school diploma, it also affects those who are considered the higher percentage of “educated” in our society. I think there are many reasons why, but one that we can help to eliminate is access. I grew up in a small town with barely a library to speak of, but I was really lucky my Mum and Dad (bless their hearts) were willing to fund much of my reading addiction.
EPL’s wish to use these literacy vans to visit senior’s homes, daycares, group homes, schools or anyone in an ill-equipped community isn’t a cheap dream, as you may suspect; $250,000 is needed to equip and to run each literacy van! I know this might be coming a little late, but for anyone who is thinking about sending me a Christmas gift to Holland this holiday season, I would ask you to save the cost of shipping (it’s exorbitant!) and donate to this worthwhile cause instead. For anyone else please consider all the books you have looked forward to unwrapping, all the gezellig and warm and fuzzy feelings reading has given you, and make a donation to EPL’s Literacy Vans.
Now my stack might look a little underwhelming to say the least, but I am pledging to read three of the books I brought along here with me from Canada in addition to seven more on Kobo (I think curling up with a Kobo is also something very gezellig, by the way.) I am greatly looking forward to participating in Bookstravaganza in three more locations this December: Amsterdam, Birmingham (U.K.) and Barcelona!
Happy reading, and a very gezellig December to all!