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Dean Whitbread 2013

Dean Whitbread 2020

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Written on November 29, 2007, and categorized as Secret and Invisible.
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I am much struck by the news of England’s resounding fall from grace in the international reading league. England has slipped from third to 19th in the world in a major assessment made by The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls). This study is made every five years of children aged about 10 in 40 countries.

It seems that this woeful situation is a result partly of modernity – contemporary computer culture is to blame – but it also surely derives from the massive focus on IT skills in schools. These skills are however frequently paper-thin, and to assume that the hard-won benefits of widespread literacy can be swapped for keyboard and mouse skills, knowing your way around a spreadsheet and a social network, and running auctions on Ebay is a dreadful mistake for educationalists to make.

Being brought up in a house full of books, taught to read early and encouraged to be independent and discursive in my reading, I have always been a fan of the old fashioned tome. For me, books were a necessary way out of the misery of my childhood and into a world rich with paper-based possibilities.

I would happily read three books every week, visit the library to ensure my addiction was never without supply, sometimes, in the days before I developed morals, would even steal from bookshops to satisfy my lust for the printed word. Yes, of course I knew stealing was wrong, but I also knew my parenting was untrustworthy and morally questionable, so having taken the decision to exempt myself from their badly-applied standards, I also used books to establish my own moral compass, which was frankly far more consistent than theirs. I was careful only to steal from the affluent chain bookstores who factored into their bottom line the concept of “shrinkage”, that euphemism for staff theft, which was a tacitly accepted fact of life. I learned about shrinkage from a book I stole on retail management.

The vast majority of books I read however were honestly acquired, the purchased items the product of conventional Saturday work, hard graft and saving. I read everything, with a boyhood appetite way beyond Jack London, The Saint and Biggles, devouring science fiction by Vonnegut, Asimov, Dick, sagas by Tolkein, adult-standard children’s literature by Alan Garner, T.S White and C.S. Lewis, existential masterpieces of the age like Milligan’s Puckoon, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and my favourite, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, which I read and re-read until the cover was falling off and retained by yellowing sellotape. Here at last was a profound howl at the universe, the horrible inevitability of death, and the powerlessness and pointlessness of the system to which I could completely and utterly relate and could understand. By the age of fourteen, I had read this book twelve times, and could quote long sections. Sometimes, like the soldier who saw everything twice, I quoted it twice, slightly spooking myself because, in Catch 22, that character died.

Now, I am not advocating the continued destruction of forests and lauding dead-tree media in some misplaced glow of nostalgia, nor am I selling you the Amazon Kindle, but I think we desert books at our peril. There is still an important role for books to play in life and we need to get them in perspective and stop blaming books for our excessive use of paper. Books can be recycled more completely than any electronic thing, and in fact, books are not the major users of paper, that accolade goes to business documents, which also win the award for being the lagest component of global air freight. Then there is food packaging, newspapers, direct mail, the US dollar.. don’t get me started. Far more paper is wasted outside of books than inside.

Are books important these days? Yes, because the continuity of the written word stretches back to the earliest papyrus and parchment, pre-historical clay tablets of cuniform, cave paintings, all the ways in which human beings have scratched upon the surface of life to leave behind some message for posterity.

Is reading important in this new age of computer-aided communications? Yes, because, when the electricity supply disappears, if you cannot read words on a page, then you can no longer connect with the wisdom of the ages.

Is writing important these days? Yes, because nothing replaces the personal investment in the making of the mark, the seeking and finding of the phrase, the effort to elucidate, examine and transform one’s life using the power of words.

Books, old books, dry words and motionless, flat pictures, books, frail and prone to decay by burning and rotting, books lost, spines broken, propping up tables, books, dusty, unread and forgotten, still remain the best mechanism we have with which to say something that might last longer than the short echo of our brief lives; what magical containers they have proved to be.

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This thing has 3 Comments

  1. Sowhatsup
    Posted 29 November, 2007 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Of course! Books are very important!

  2. La Sirena
    Posted 29 November, 2007 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    What a great post.

    When I think about how much contemporary affluent Western nations (mine in particular) mirror the last years of Rome — the undoing of which led to the Dark Ages and widespread ignorance — I remember that a cache of books survived in Ireland and a library survived in Spain under the protection of the Moors and so it was books — preserving Classical knowledge until humanity was once again ready for it — that sparked the Renaissance.

    (OK, and books have always been my magical escape pod, as well.)

  3. Twit
    Posted 30 November, 2007 at 2:44 am | Permalink


    I can smell your book¦:¬|

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