Many, many lives

Books are not furniture. They are not there simply as stage dressing to make a room - and by implication its occupants - look good.

Last outing, I was moaning about reports from the UK which highlighted the number of children entering school for the first time singularly ill-equipped to take full advantage of the benefits of education. Specifically, there is a cohort who do not know how to handle books. So, this week I want to take a closer look at the world of books.

Years ago I read about an interesting argument between two friends. The first had quoted – accurately – a remark by Sir Francis Bacon, the eminent English jurist, philosopher, and statesman, that “reading maketh a full man”. His friend disagreed. His view was that the quote was “reading maketh a fool, man”. (A historical footnote: Sir Francis Bacon had an interesting career spanning the reign of Elizabeth I into that of James I, or the Sixth in Scots terms. Bacon is also a prime candidate as the real author of Shakespeare’s plays – for those souls who don’t believe William Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.)

Back to the debate. Apart from emphasising the importance of punctuation (the position of that comma is essential) it raises an important philosophical point: does reading make a full man or a fool, man? Obviously I tend towards the complete argument. Me, I read anything and everything. Whenever I get a new prescription, regrettably all too frequent an occurrence these days, I even read the accompanying clinical notes. Doctors tell me this is not a good idea – it tends to bring a whole new wealth of meaning to the phrase cured of what you’ve suffering from, but suffering from the cure. But I do have some understanding of the thinking behind the idea that books can create foolishness.

Some two centuries after Bacon, another leading UK literary figure, the cleric and wit the Rev. Sydney Smith, wrote: (there is) “no furniture as charming as books.” I think, or I hope, I know what he meant – that we should be comfortable surrounded by books. But this is where foolishness comes in. There are far too many people who take Mr Smith’s words too literally and regard books as no more than furniture, there to simply fill up or dress a room. I am specifically thinking of these folk, largely with more money than sense, who hire overrated interior designers to curate perfectly matching libraries for them with rows of elegant shelves of uniform books, all looking brand new, and there to look imposing and important.

Books are not furniture. They are not there simply as stage dressing to make a room – and by implication its occupants – look good. To quote a much respected US university academic “these are not books but minds alive on the shelves.” That was courtesy of a man called Gilbert Highet, born in Glasgow, educated at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, who went on to become one of North America’s most eminent classicists.

I first learned of Highet a long time ago as a young journalist in Glasgow (the mid 1960s to be exact) and I have tried to reflect his thoughts in all the books I have read and collected over the years since. More prosaically I have tried to link his thinking with an important piece of advice I was given as an inexperienced reporter – a good journalist should know something about everything. As a result, my books reflect what I like to think of as my enquiring restless magpie mind, what I describe as an eclectic miscellany – though I suspect less kind others might prefer to describe both mind and books as a disorganised hotch potch.

So what am I reading at the moment? I hope it is an interesting selection but let me make it clear, these are not recommendations. Nowadays I am very wary of recommending anything, whether restaurants, wines, films, or books. I trust too much in Shaw’s advice not to assume that other people share my tastes.

As a result of my recent musings about the British Empire, I have returned to two long established favourites. The first I have already mentioned. James (Jan) Morris, the source of the notion that Britain acquired its empire in a fit of absentmindedness, is the author of a genuinely brilliant trilogy, Pax Britannica, which is an outstanding and magisterial account of that empire at its height. It is history writing at its best.

In the same vein, but recorded in a more light-hearted fictional basis, are the Flashman novels of George MacDonald Fraser. Yes, that Flashman, the cowardly bully of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, visualised by Fraser as the highly respected General Sir Harry Flashman VC, KCB, and a whole page worth of other honours reflecting a brilliant military career all achieved through unsurpassed (unsurprisingly) cowardice, bullying, lechery, lying, dishonesty, deceit, and most of the seven deadly sins adding a rich and ripe catalogue of other lesser, but much more entertaining, weaknesses.

Flashman is a fictional character (we can but hope so), but the characters that fill his memoirs are all real people, from Geronimo, the Apache shaman and warrior, to Queen Victoria herself, and the adventures he lives through – invariably in a state of abject terror – are a wonderful account of the history of the 1800s ranging across Europe, India, and Afghanistan, Borneo, Madagascar, the USA, the Crimea, and China, and most parts in between.

I have to admit to a degree of personal bias here. George MacDonald Fraser was the Deputy Editor of the first national daily newspaper I ever worked for, and he was a remarkable example to all journalists. That talent shines through every word of the picaresque memoir he has concocted for the old Flashman.

Don’t take just my word for it. An American reviewer described the very first book as “this rollicking, action-packed, historical yarn” and, later in the series, no less an authority than the Washington Post wrote, “not only are the Flashman books extremely funny, but they give meticulous care to authenticity. You can, between the guffaws, learn from them.”

That, quite simply, is the beating heart of books. In the words of another famous US academic and Senator, S.I. Hayakawa, “it is not true that we have only one life to live: if we can read, we can live as many more lives and do as many kinds of lives as we wish.”

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