Wednesday, September 17, 2014

September 17 2014. Big phones? I’m in favor of anything which encourages reading—and the news about reading is really quite encouraging. I’m agreeably surprised—and very pleased..

“When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes.”


“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”

Joyce Carol Oates

“There is no friend as loyal as a book.”

Ernest Hemingway

“What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

Anne Lamott

“I am simply a ‘book drunkard.’ Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotee. I cannot withstand them.”

L.M. Montgomery

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”

Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler)

As I have described before, I was sent to boarding school very young—at the age of five—and couldn’t read. Since the normal age of a new entrant was about eight and a half—and by that age all could read—it had been widely assumed that I could read too. The school either hadn’t thought to ask—or else my mother had been economical with the truth (as was her way).

If memory serves, it took some time before my inability to read was discovered—most of the first term, in fact. My recollection is that most of what we learned initially was by rote—with no written work required—so I guess that was why my deficiencies remained undetected. When my reading and writing inadequacies were discovered, there was consternation. Quite what all that says about the school’s teaching methods,  I don’t know—but I doubt it can be considered favorable.  My first boarding school was St. Gerards in Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland (in Ireland, we put ‘county first’—as in County Dublin). It is now highly regarded, but I do not recall it kindly. I associate it with years of bullying and mediocre teaching. Still, to be fair to Gerards, my experiences were colored by being far too young for the place. Why did they admit me so young? My mother could be extraordinarily persuasive.

Be that as it may, eventually a Miss Johnson took me in hand and taught me how to read and then to write. She also told me—appreciate that I was only five and very small—that I was so sweet she would like to take me into her bed and just hug me. I lived in dread of Miss Johnson for some time after that.

I learned very quickly, and soon became an obsessional reader. I read everything I could lay my hands on, was never without a book, and read everywhere—except in church. I tried there too, but a typical novel is larger than a prayer book so I was detected and punished.

But church apart, I read on the bus, at the circus, at the theater, at the fairground, during social occasions—when I could get away with it—and by flashlight  under a blanket when in bed. I loved it. I still do. Only writing now surpasses it as my passion—and writing involves a great deal of reading.

When I was in my teens—at a much better boarding school, Ampleforth College in north Yorkshire, England—I was warned by my housemaster, Benedictine monk Dom Patrick Barry (widely known as ‘Paddy’—see photo), that too much reading would separate me socially from my peers.

Nonetheless, since he was a bookish man himself, he was sympathetic and made me the house librarian. He was widely unpopular then (with the boys) because he was stern and had a formidable physical presence, but I liked and respected him a great deal. He went on to become the abbot—and last I checked was in his nineties and still alive. Who knew he would become so jovial! He’s a remarkable man—scholar, classicist, calligrapher, sculptor, archer—of many talents.

At that time, you had to write down the title of every book you read—and you had a minimum goal of something like three books per term. My problem was I read too many books—over ten times the minimum some terms--which gave rise to questions about whether I was studying hard enough. I wasn’t—except where the subject matter interested me.

But I read on regardless and, when I ran out of books in my house library, I borrowed them—via a friend—from another house.

In that way, I read every book Nevil Shute (see photo) wrote (and was much enriched by the experience). Shute is a great story teller—and I was quite bereft when I finished his last book. He was prolific and wrote 23 in all.

I always feel a little sad when I finish a really good book. Post-coital tristesse, indeed.

Was Paddy right that too much reading tends to distance a person from his peers? In some ways, he was absolutely right because too much knowledge tends to change the way you think fairly fundamentally. You have had—so to speak—more experience (albeit second-hand experience). Also, if you prefer to read rather than be social, that can be a problem in itself.

On the other hand, if you read as much as I did—and continue to do so—then you tend to know something about most things so find it easy to have common ground with just about anyone. Better yet if you are empathetic, which I am. So I have ended up intermittently social—but not socially needy. A major deficiency is that I am not a good networker. I regret that. Success has more to do with who you know than talent. But, you are what you are.

I have no regrets at all about the amount of time I have spent reading—though I do have decided reservations about television. If ever there was a social killer, that’s it. Conversation used to be an art form in Ireland—and that nation still maintains a high standard—but the introduction of TV into pubs noticeably degraded verbal skills. Similarly, dropping into each other’s homes used to be the focus of much entertainment in the evenings. And then came TV. I feel very lucky to have been brought up in a TV free house.

I have worried about the state of reading over the years—and much has been written either saying it is in decline—or forecasting that it soon will be. My concern has been that there are so many other distractions available—and multimedia represents formidable competition to the written word.

Yet recent research from Pew Research is quite encouraging. Let me quote from

Millennials, like each generation that was young before them, tend to attract all kinds of ire from their elders for being superficial, self-obsessed, anti-intellectuals. But a study out today from the Pew Research Center offers some vindication for the younger set. Millennials are reading more books than the over-30 crowd, Pew found in a survey of more than 6,000 Americans.

Some 88 percent of Americans younger than 30 said they read a book in the past year compared with 79 percent of those older than 30. At the same time, American readers' relationship with public libraries is changing—with younger readers less likely to see public libraries as essential in their communities.

Overall, Americans are buying more books than they borrow, the study found. Among those who read at least one book in the past year, more than half said they tend to purchase books rather than borrow them. Fewer Americans are visiting libraries than in recent years, but more Americans are using library websites.

It could well be that we won’t all be communicating through pictograms—reverting to the caveman approach, so to speak, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Incidentally, the weirdest aspect of all this is the way talking on the phone is now so out of fashion. Texting is in instead. I regard that as a great pity—even though texting is (I suppose) a form of writing. Given what I read all too often, I make that concession grudgingly.

But the human voice is very special and communicates in an equally special way. And I particularly warm to the sound of an attractive female voice.

Not sure ‘warm’ is the right word.





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