Sunday, October 21, 2012

Thoughts from a Tub

I have recently rediscovered the joys of reading in the bath, which is something I used to do all the time as a kid. Warm water and the printed word; a combination that is impossible to beat.

One of the rules of my recently revived sport of tub-reading is that I can't bring the book I'm "officially" reading into the bath. Reading a new book is always a kind of prospecting; you don't know if the book as a whole is going to be any good and you especially don't know if any particular passage or chapter is going to be any good. So, since reading in the bath is gleefully self-indulgent, I only bring already-read books in with me; books that I know won't let me down.

So today I plucked Chesterton's biography of St. Francis of Assisi from the shelf and took it into the bathroom. I was strangely moved by the very first words I read, which were not actually Chesterton's words but the publisher's preface:

THE object of HODDER AND STOUGHTONS PEOPLE'S LIBRARY is to supply in brief form simply written introductions to the study of History, Literature, Biography and Science; in some degree to satisfy that ever-increasing demand for knowledge which is one of the happiest characteristics of our time. The names of the authors of the first volumes of the Library are sufficient evidence of the fact that each subject will be dealt with authoritatively, while the authority will not be of the dry-as-dust order. Not only is it possible to have learning without tears, but it is also possible to make the acquiring of knowledge a thrilling and entertaining adventure. HODDER AND STOUGHTONS PEOPLES LIBRARY will, it is hoped, supply this adventure.

Why did I find this so moving? Because in one paragraph it evoked to me a commercial and social philosophy that I cherish, and one that I think is rather on the wane.

(Yes, I am a galloping nostalgist, and I am always inclined to over-prize and over-praise the past. I admit this. But it doesn't mean I'm always wrong.)

To put it simply, I like the schoolmastery tone of the paragraph. It seems to me that business and commerce are very necessary and very laudable aspects of society; but their constant temptation is to become entirely focused upon profit and the bottom line. I think that a healthy society demands more from its commerce than this. And publishing especially should be an industry that pursues some ideal of the common good, rather than simply trying to shift units.

I simply don't often detect, in more recently published books, the tone of that preface-- the tone of a publicly-spirited entrepreneur addressing a readership that is presumed to be earnestly-minded and bent upon cultural and intellectual self-improvement.

You can find intellectually ambitious books in bookshops, of course, but they are almost inevitably written in an academic style, with all its associated pedantry and obfuscations and frenzy of footnotes. The idea of an educated layman who has a humanistic interest in all provinces of knowledge, but who expects even a technical book to be written with flair and style, seems rather lacking in our day.

I remember, in the primary school I attended, there was a collection of old kids' magazines called Look and Learn. The magazine ran from 1962 to 1982, and though it contained comic strips (notably the science-fiction story The Trigan Empire) the magazine was mostly devoted to educational articles, written and illustrated in a lively manner. And this was a publication for kids!

I never actually read Look and Learn-- I only skimmed through it-- but I do have very fond memories of the encyclopedias (I think encyclopediae is a lost cause by now) that my parents bought me in my childhood. And it wasn't just encyclopedias, actually, but also children's general knowledge books with titles like Tell Me Why and How to Hold a Crocodile. It wasn't only the content that I appreciated, but the whole atmosphere that hung over their pages-- the sense that they were good for you, that they were mentally nutritious, that life was a voyage of intellectual discovery and reading these books was launching myself upon that voyage.

Particular articles and picture stand out in my memory. I remember reading about the English artist Wright of Derby and looking at the accompanying reproduction of his famous picture an Experiment of a Bird in the Air Pump. I remember how the very solemnity and suspense of that picture echoed my own sense of enthralled discovery.

I also have a vivid memory of coming back home from a game of street football, eating a bowl of reheated curry for supper, and reading about Genghis Khan for the first time. I remember how that felt-- it was like coming over the brow of a great mountain and seeing a vast virgin territory stretching before me. That was the general feeling that I got from reading these "improving" children's books.

There is a common idea that children hate anything that they suspect of being worthy or self-improving, that knowledge and culture will only be welcomed by them if it is sugar-coated and presented as "fun" in the shallowest sense. I'm not sure that this is true. I think that children have quite an appetite for instruction and serious knowledge. I think they even have an appetite for the solemn impartment of learning, since they love to be treated as adults. Books like the Horrible Histories series may have their merits, but I can't help feeling that they are cheating kids of a sense of awe or solemnity in the acquisition of knowledge.

And I think adults, too, are missing out on something when books are increasingly divided between those which are intended entirely to entertain and those which make no concession at all to that worthy citizen, General Reader.

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