Author Juha Itkonen: Should the strong polarisation of literacy continue, genuine access to university will become available to fewer and fewer people

Author Juha Itkonen considers himself someone who sees the big picture. But there is still one everyday routine he has held on to with his four children.

Needless overdue fees from the library, lost mittens, a phone bill arriving in the envelope of a debt collection agency. These are things familiar to careless everyday heroes.

Author Juha Itkonen recognises this characteristic in himself. As a human being, he considers himself a generalist, someone who gets interested in the big picture. And yet Itkonen writes books that contain worlds which are built on fairly detailed description.

– When writing, I focus on the details, but I don’t fuss that much about other things. I just completed the biannual cleaning of my office space, before which there was an inordinate amount of papers and boxes lying around everywhere.

Every now and then, he forgets to pay a bill by the due date, allowing the debt collection agency to penalise his bank account through a demand note.

– It’s small-scale recklessness, probably caused by my mind wandering all over the place.

A generalist finds his place

Itkonen’s inclinations also played a part in him transferring from the Faculty of Arts to the Faculty of Social Sciences after his first year at the University. After graduating from upper secondary school, studying the Finnish language and comparative literature seemed like a good idea, as the 19-year-old Itkonen wanted to become a poet.

That comparative literature employs scientific techniques to examine literature came as a surprise.

– In my mind’s eye, I had a vision of students reading books, which I imagined would result in me becoming a writer.

Itkonen’s parents, a mother who worked as a laboratory technician and a realtor father, had ended up in their professions without completing even upper secondary school, typical of their generation. 

– Above all, my original choice of discipline most likely illustrates how little I knew about academia to begin with. I think it’s still a really tall order for today’s adolescents to expect them to find the right study path at the first go.

Recently, Helsingin Sanomat (16 December 2019) wrote about the sudden increase in the consumption of psychotropic drugs when people are in their twenties, the traditional age of studying. Among students, the pressure to do well grows, and access to the support provided by your family is not what it used to be during childhood.

Itkonen too remembers the beginning of his studies as a difficult time.

– Everything revolved around moving to a big city and being a lonely youth. It all escalated into a crisis in the first spring term when I came to the conclusion I wouldn't become a poet after all and that I couldn’t continue studying at the Faculty of Arts.

Luckily, military service provided a gap year, after which Itkonen transferred to the Faculty of Social Sciences.

– Instead of examining the details, the Faculty of Social Sciences provides a broad overview of society. It was the right place for me, after I finally found my way there.

After just two years of study, Itkonen began working as a journalist.

– If not quite having command of it, university at the least teaches you to look for the big picture. I didn’t waste a lot of time before I started to hoard important topics for articles, requiring me to head to the library for background research. Due to differences in our backgrounds, my colleagues probably had other strengths. They may have been socially very adept at calling people, for instance, something that wasn't my forte.

Little by little, Itkonen started to hatch an idea about a longer text, resulting in his debut novel Myöhempien aikojen pyhiä, which was published in 2003. Three years later, he left his day job to work as a freelance writer.

Itkonen admits that basic studies in literature have been helpful in writing fiction, for example, when weighing different narrative solutions.

Fighting for reading

Itkonen is a father of four. Shared bedtime stories are an important routine that this author, even when focused on the big picture, has held on to. It is an everyday struggle for literacy.

It is well known that the parents' educational level is easily passed down also in Finland, a country considered equal. What Itkonen is particularly worried about is a growing inequality in terms of the ability to read. The number of people who have a hard time reading has grown. At the same time, illiteracy quickly narrows people’s opportunities down in today’s degree-oriented labour market.

– Should the strong polarisation of literacy continue, genuine access to university will become available to fewer and fewer people.

The home background has a great impact on differences in reading ability, but social media and streaming services are competing against books in everyone’s life.

– When you at some point stop reading bedtime stories together and children should start reading independently, there's a new level of difficulty to it. I'm currently trying to come up with means and incentives to get my 14-year-old firstborn to read, at least occasionally.

 How do you ensure continuous learning?

– By seeking things I’m not inherently familiar with. In recent years, these things have included weightlifting and gardening. Children are a considerable help in this; through them, I get to know worlds that would otherwise remain strange to a middle-aged person.

Who or which place or situation has taught you something? What did you learn?

– There are plenty of answers to this, but the KOM-teatteri theatre company comes to mind first. Roughly ten years ago, I had a couple of extremely intensive projects there where I ended up on the stage without any kind of drama education. At times, I thought I was losing my mind, but I made it through. What I learned was that you shouldn’t be afraid of adventure.