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Celebrating World Book Day (the British version)

March 2, 2017


Today is World Book Day. Or at least it is in Britain. Elsewhere in the world, UNESCO’s celebration of the written word takes place on 23 April, which coincides with the birthdays of Cervantes and Shakespeare.

Apparently, we did a Brexit some time ago. We chose today because the day on which everybody else celebrates books is also St George’s Day, when England football fans and various nationalist factions proudly wave the red-crossed banner. That day in April also coincides with the school holidays, so that our teachers would miss out on an opportunity to persuade our youth to take an interest in stuff beyond what the National Curriculum forces them to read.

Here in Shakespeare’s homeland, outside the classroom you’d be hard pushed to find any evidence of this worthy event. So, as my contribution to World Book Day, I’m sharing some thoughts on one of my favourite subjects.

I spend much of my time closeted in my little study – working, reading, writing, and sometimes just thinking – often sitting back with a foot up on the desk. I’m surrounded by books, CDs, documents and mementos. Each object means something – a gift, an artefact I bought in a foreign country, an heirloom. Each picture on the wall – mainly cartoons – reminds me of a period in my life.

But the stars of my sanctuary are the books. I love them, I devour them. I buy them in huge quantities. I read them at night, during the day, on holiday. Sometimes I review them in this blog. For every book I review I read ten, maybe twenty.

Yet every so often, when I think about everything I’ve read, something nags at me.

Like me, my father was a book obsessive. His tastes were more eclectic than mine. He was into history, anthropology, science, philosophy, psychology, mathematics and spiritualism. He was also a walking Wikipedia on the royal houses of Europe.

Take away maths, spiritualism and royal families, and my interests are similar, though perhaps more focused on specific sub-sets of those areas.

When my father died, my brother and I took on the task of disposing of his books. He’s is a statistician, so the maths books, for example, went to him. I took the history. My other siblings took some according to their interests, and we gave the rest away.

I’ve read some of them, but others remain unread, as I struggle to keep up with the tide of new stuff I keep buying. New is not necessarily better, and no doubt there are some gems among my father’s library yet to be discovered and appreciated.

Today, when I run my eye down my bookshelves, I wish I had asked him a few questions about his reading. I would have liked to have known if his experience of reading was the same as mine.

How much of the stuff he read did he retain? If I had pointed to one of his books, could he have told me one specific feature that made it worth reading? Or was the act of reading a journey, full of attractive scenery to be enjoyed, sometimes admired, and then forgotten? Or, if not forgotten, relegated to the subconscious, to emerge from time to time? Which of his books changed his life, and why?

Perhaps his answers wouldn’t have been much use to me. After all, everyone is different, and presumably everyone approaches reading in their own way.

So here’s the problem. When I ask the same questions of myself, the answers are not clear or particularly comforting. How many have actually made a difference to me? Not many. How many have informed my views on life? Very few. In what way have the tens of thousands of hours I’ve spent reading been useful – to me or to anyone else?

If I was a surgeon, reading surgery books might have made me a better surgeon. Likewise, if I was a lawyer, an engineer or a politician. But if I just love reading for the sake of it, what’s the point? I read stuff, I fill up with knowledge, and then I die. Is it a one-way street – everything in, nothing out?

Wouldn’t the time I spend reading books be better used exploring the countryside, helping refugees, making money or trying to become our Prime Minister?

When we eat, our bodies take what they need to stay alive, and excrete the rest. The act of excretion is very obvious. Yet what enters the brain – through reading, observing, talking and listening – doesn’t have such a clear purgatory path. It stays there. Scientists tell us that our brains are constantly organising and making sense of the input. Stuff gets deleted, archived, recalled to serve us when needed. Through a mysterious process it gets added to the patchwork of our knowledge and experience.

So I’m good at quizzes. I’m able to drag out obscure pieces of information to illustrate a point. I can make connections between today and yesterday. What I remember of the books I read is highly selective. I could tell you plenty about the stuff I read last year, less about what I read the previous year, and so on. The exceptions are those books that I regard as life-changing. Books that made me think differently, do things differently, and make specific decisions about my life.

And as I said, there aren’t many of them, and the rest fade away. But the forgotten books still sit there in my bookshelves. They’re there to be dipped into, sometimes re-read. And occasionally, miraculously, an idea, or a passage from a book long forgotten, jumps out and presents itself, ready to inform a conversation or provide context to a new book, idea or concept.

When I look at all those volumes, ordered by author, subject or era, I sometimes get a sense of overkill.

I have three biographies of Winston Churchill, and maybe thirty other histories covering his era. Did all those volumes enhance my understanding of the man? And if they did, for what purpose? I’m not a historian who quotes a hundred references as the sources of their work. Surely one bloody biography would have been enough. And could I, as the result of this exhaustive reading, tell you how Max Hastings, Roy Jenkins and Richard Holmes differ in their views of the great man? Not easily.

Am I an expert on Winston Churchill, on Byzantium, on Ancient Rome, on the Islamic world or on the Cold War arms race – all subjects that I’ve delved into quite deeply? Far from it, even if I might be better informed than some of my neighbours.

Do I see the world differently after reading Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Hofstede’s Cultures and Organisations? Yes, but not to the point that I’m ready to abandon all my worldly goods and become an itinerant seeker after the truth.

And what of fiction? Was I changed by The Dice Man, Catch 22, the Sugar Street trilogy, Midnight’s Children, Cities of Salt and The Circle? Enriched perhaps. Thrilled, moved and enlightened, certainly. But impelled to become a politician, a priest or a suicide bomber? Fortunately not.

What also of all the other stuff I read? Thousands of newspaper articles. Hundreds of op-eds on Brexit, Trump, Syria and climate change. And all the ephemera that attracts my passing interest – stuff on Facebook, clickbait, stories about celebrities, obituaries, oddities and fake news. Mostly in one lobe and out the other, though sometimes passing through the critical processing unit that uses the snippets to make sense of something previously mysterious.

All this stuff – for what? When I could have been climbing mountains, making new friends, helping refugees, teaching, demonstrating against dumb politicians and their stupid policies. Or perhaps trying to change people’s lives with a self-help book or a ground-breaking economic theory. With the former, it’s a question of more of. The latter is beyond my capacity, I’m afraid.

I do, however, have an outlet, and you’re reading it. Mine is a small voice among millions – more like hundreds of millions. No matter. It’s my voice. But in case you think I’m writing just for you, think again. Actually, it’s more for me. A way of forcing myself to process stuff rather than just letting it slip by into the subconscious without more than a passing attempt to make sense of it.

I review books, not just because I want other people to read what I think is worth reading, but because reviewing a book forces me to think about what I’ve read. Did it make sense or didn’t it? Did it move me, delight me or enlighten me? If it bores me, you won’t hear about it.

In that respect, I’m a one-man book club. The discussions are mainly with myself. Perhaps I would gain more through sharing ideas with others, just as I do when talking politics with friends and loved ones. But I don’t, perhaps because so many conversations about stuff that is important to me end up tainted by anger and frustration about the way things are. Nobody wants an angry man in their book club.

Going back to my father, what was his output from a lifetime’s reading? The books themselves, certainly. But beyond them, very little that is tangible. A few diaries, scribbled down and sometimes impossibly obscure. A few notebooks that to anyone but himself – now deceased – are as undecipherable as Linear B.

But of course that wasn’t the whole story. He was a great conversationalist. He had his family, and he had many circles of friends. He was wise in some respects and foolish in others.  In all his conversations over a long life, he was informed by stuff he read. And others – certainly me included – were informed through him.

And perhaps if someone looked at me, they might say similar things. Which I suppose is my way of groping towards a reason for spending all those thousands of hours immersed in books.

But in truth, there is no reason, no high-minded purpose. I read for the sake of it – for the love of it. Whatever knowledge or modest store of wisdom I have acquired is the accidental by-product of an internal compulsion.

And sooner or later the vast grey repository of bits and bytes, of memories ordered or disordered, of patterns, theories and perceived experience, will be gone. But the books will still be there. Someone else might read some of them – either my children or someone picking up a bargain in a charity shop. The millions of words I’ve written will still be out there. And perhaps the conversations themselves will be recycled again and again – some idea might inspire someone else, who might in turn put their spin on it and pass it on. The butterfly effect.

This, after all, is how humans have always worked – through oral histories, ancestral knowledge and inherited traditions. It’s still how we work, despite our adventures with the written word. Do opinions form on subjects like Brexit or immigration because you and I have read European Union directives and all the other countless documents that underpin the institutions of state? There may be books informing our views, be they works of Karl Marx or some scurrilous demolition of a public figure. But in the main, unless we’re academics, we form our opinions based on our own experience, the second-hand experience conveyed by TV and the movies, and on conversations between the like-minded.

And, of course, the internet. What sits there is a direct descendent of the great libraries – the ancient scriptures, the Library of Alexandria, the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the Ashmolean and the Library of Congress. All of them are imperfect attempts to assemble in one place the accumulated wisdom of the world. The internet – or rather those warehouses full of servers humming away among remote corn fields – has the chance to go one better. Before long. every written word that has survived fires, floods, termites, earthquakes and deliberate destruction will be available to be read online – at a price.

Until the age of Gutenberg, very few of us owned more than a handful of books. The vast majority possessed none. Nowadays, an ordinary person like me can easily assemble a thousand books.

But if all our written words are in bits and bytes, like the contents of our brains they can easily be erased. If not destroyed, they can archived or embargoed. If Donald Trump’s propagandists decide to re-write history, or the People’s Republic of China resolves to hide stuff from its people by building a Great Firewall, it is easier for them to do so than it was for the Nazis with their book burning, or for the Mongols who coloured the waters of the Euphrates black with the ink of volumes from the House of Wisdom.

Which is why we need books. Paper ones that can be hidden in monasteries, under floorboards and in attics. The more there are, the more some will survive natural or human catastrophe.

And we need libraries – not just the web – where in normal times people can educate themselves, open their minds or just entertain themselves.

And we need people brave enough to self-publish on paper as well as online, so that a small number of commercial publishers can’t be the sole arbiters of what is suitable for us to read.

Even if we don’t have it in ourselves to write books, we need to buy them, think about them, talk to others about them and share them.

No matter that most of the words go in one lobe of the brain and out of the other. We are like panhandlers searching for gold. For every ton of alluvial gravel we sieve through, we might find a few grains of precious metal. And for some of us, those little nuggets can change our lives.

Good reasons, I suggest, to celebrate World Book Day.

From → Books, History, Politics, Social, UK, USA

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