“The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books.“
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
This is my 200th blog to date. Since launching them in June 2009 I have written over 250,000 words on subjects ranging through Board governance, business, Chile, education, the environment, foreign affairs, the future, history, innovation, languages and culture, leadership and management, marketing, networking, pedantry, people, politics and economics, sport, sustainability and technology. But today, to mark the occasion, I am going to write about one of my principal pleasures, that of reading.
Everyone says that one of their interests is reading but if you ask them in a job interview to tell you what they are reading now most cannot do it. I always can - in fact I’m usually reading two books, one fiction and one non-fiction. Currently I’m reading A Place of Greater Safety, a novel about the French Revolution by Hilary Mantel, and a fascinating book on geology called Earth – an intimate history by Richard Fortey. It is in effect a history of the world. I also have an audio book on the go, a travel story based on a trip to Baghdad.
My Mother encouraged me to read. I was a regular user of the library from a very young age and she introduced me to many of my favourite writers. Our house wasn’t overflowing with books but there was a good collection including a full set of Reprint Society novels that my parents must have subscribed to.
We were allowed one comic each - this was the politically correct Robin, then Swift and then I started to express my individualism by taking Tiger, which allowed me to read Roy of the Rovers, purportedly written by my first football hero, Bobby Charlton. When I introduced a second comic into the house, Victor, my Mother scolded me and banned it. That of course drove that habit underground and later I experimented with Superman comics and Mad magazine. She also disapproved when I exchanged a birthday book token for a Famous Five novel. She was quite right, this was a waste of a chance to buy something more durable than a once-read-thrown-away children’s thriller. I now think that all reading is good as long as some of it is stretching you in some way, either by making you think, or by teaching you new ideas or facts. But I have to confess I have read a lot of rubbish in my time.
At Manchester Grammar School (MGS) I won two prizes; one in the first year and one on leaving. In the first year, with my Mother’s coaching, I won the Procter prize for reading i.e. reading aloud. The prize was of course a book, but to a modest value. I took a biography of Sir Donald Bradman, another sporting hero. I still have this trophy. On leaving I was awarded the Annie Burton Memorial scholarship. I never discovered who Annie Burton was but this allowed me to put together a much more impressive list of books, including a dictionary of quotations and the complete works of Shakespeare and Marlowe. I still have these as well.
I discovered two of my favourite authors about the same time. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried hard to be taken seriously for his literary works but his Sherlock Holmes stories are immortal and are easily the most enjoyable books to re-read that I have ever come across. They just outdistance the comic masterpieces of P.G. Wodehouse if only because there is a touch of repetition in Wodehouse - he sometimes struggles for a plot, even resorting to recycling his plot ideas, or even buying one on the open market, while Doyle seemed to have endless powers of invention. So Doyle gets my desert island vote and I would be happy to stay there on the island re-reading them until I had been able to write my own contribution to the canon. (Actually I did try this with both of them in two of our family Christmas Newsletters.)
In the autumn of 1966, post A Levels, most MGS boys stayed on to enter the Oxbridge entrance exams held at the end of that term. I found this one of the most intensely satisfying intellectual periods of my education. Freed from the restrictions of the GCE syllabus I read over 60 books - novels, history, philosophy, in a period of just three months. From the earlier frivolity of comics and undemanding entertainment at 16 I was taking on modern classics as well as developing my ideas. Even so it was a shock to me that I passed the exam and gained a place at Oxford.
The next few years, first at Blake in Minneapolis and then at New College, exposed me to people of similar intelligence and different backgrounds, and more rewarding than formal reading lists were the recommendations of a whole series of new friends. I discovered Dostoyevsky and Tolkien, Fowles and Ferlinghetti, Graves and Galsworthy this way.
But then on leaving Oxford and taking up a business career colleagues provided a different kind of stimulus, competitive rather than intellectual. Reading reverted to escapism and once more I scavenged among the trash. There were a few exceptions but I became a collector of the airport novel.
Giving up smoking provided a new stimulus. I took some time to give up, not just for the usual reasons of physical addiction but also because I did not want to replace one bad habit with another. So I resolved to use the money saved to buy books through a book club. For a number of years I took advantage of all the “join and you only have to buy three books” offers that came my way. I ruthlessly resigned from these clubs when I had fulfilled the minimum commitment and thus established the basis of a half decent library.
I also rediscovered the ability to read a long book. As a boy I had devoured the works of Dumas even though they are exceptionally long novels, because they are so thrilling that the length is never an obstacle. Dickens had, however, been beyond me – perhaps we were introduced to such works too early. Now I could take on the long sagas of Clavell and Michener and later, with this ability, rediscovered the joys of Dickens whose complete works I have now completed.
Fortunately in my wife I found a kindred spirit. We shared interests in many things but especially reading and on our many holidays together she indulged my need to spend a considerable part of the holiday reading. She always made it a point to take at least one photo of me reading as for her this captured part of the essence of our time together and some of these are indescribably funny. One on the steps of the bus station in Zapallar in Chile shows me waiting for the bus but impervious to everything going on around me, and another shows me sitting on a sofa in a French villa, wrapped up in a book, and surrounded by drying laundry of the most intimate nature.
A more recent and most welcome discovery has been the audio book. I count this as “reading” although strictly someone else is reading to you. To listen to Greta Scacchi reading Jane Austen or Timothy West reading the Flashman series is a great pleasure and, of course, extends the time for reading. I listen while walking or driving and I know others even use it as an aid to the ironing.
A less welcome discovery is the ereader and ebooks. I confess to owning a Kindle and, while it’s useful as a way to keep the baggage weight down on a trip, I find it soulless without the smell and feel of a new book. It’s lack of page numbers makes it difficult to calculate how long it’s taking to read a book as I like to pace myself, or look ahead to see if I can finish a chapter before a certain deadline.
I now read between 50 and 100 books per year, much more than most I know, but a fraction of what Gladstone read. The GOM read some 20,000 books in his lifetime. Perhaps some were shorter than today’s publications and no doubt it was a useful way to pass very long carriage journeys but still it was a monumental achievement. Since I started keeping a list some 35 years ago I have read nearly 2000 books, so I have probably read some 3,500 books so far and will never get near Mr. Gladstone´s figure.
But I won’t stop trying.
Copyright David C Pearson 2014 All rights reserved