Quote of The Week

"The rewards for being sane may not be very many, but knowing what's funny is one of them"

Kingsley Amis

Archives

Nice and Nasty

A lot of us were depressed by the news that the Walt Disney Company is planning to makeover the image of Mickey Mouse, to show his darker side and so increase his profitability. Now I’m not naïve. I kept mice as pets when I was a boy, and I know that even the most agreeable white mice have a dark side. But please, not Mickey. Soon kids will have no place to hide from the media’s obsession with violence and nastiness. What next? Will Public Television transform Big Bird into a vulture, to make him more interesting? Will Mrs. Tiggy Winkle the hedgehog be fitted out with poison spines for her next movie?

Nastiness sells, but I don’t understand why. Where’s the entertainment value in things that are ugly and cruel? It’s a curious commentary on human nature that a lot of people have always enjoyed being scared and revolted. This perverse taste for horror goes back much farther than Frankenstein. Pick just about any society from the ancient world, from the Mayans to the Romans, and you will find that depraved and violent myths were at the very heart of their cultures. Humans seem to be the only creatures that take conscious pleasure in the suffering of others. This is nothing to be proud of, or encourage in young children.

You might hope that as our society becomes kinder and gentler, which it has, and as science and rational thought make steady progress, which they have, we would naturally discard these sick hangovers from the dark ages. But here we are, almost two decades into the twenty-first century, absolutely awash with bizarre twaddle about zombies, vampires and werewolves. New movies and books about them appear all the time, including one called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is apparently ultra-violent and very nasty indeed, and even the civilized game of chess has been given a perverse twist by a British impresario who has competitors alternate four-minute rounds of chess with three-minute rounds of boxing. No, I didn’t make it up.

Two of the favorite adjectives in today’s entertainment world are “gritty” and “edgy.” It seems that, as our real lives become safer and more civilized, we need to escape backwards into a darker world, with the aid of edgy cartoons, thuggish chess games, thirsty vampires, restless zombies – and I won’t even mention video games, most of which are as macabre and nightmarish as anything the ancient Romans could devise.

What saves us from being overwhelmed by all this profitable nastiness is a sense of humor. Most of the stuff designed to horrify and frighten us is just plain silly – ludicrous plastic vampires, cheap electronic sound effects, and so on. There is, after all, some balance in our universe. The birth anniversary of Boris Karloff is also the birth anniversary of Harpo Marx, who never spoke in performances, let alone screamed, because he didn’t have to. All Harpo needed to prevail against the forces of darkness were his bemused expression, his little horn, boop boop, and of course his harp. When the gritty mice and wicked werewolves come calling, that’s all any of us need. One little boop, and the laughter blows them all away.

The Secret Life of Just About Everybody

It was only a matter of time before yet another version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty made it on to the big screen. I haven’t seen the movie with Ben Stiller, but I don’t need to. Walter Mitty has entered the realm of mythology, and his story is as universal as a love story. Everybody knows it, and everybody lives it.

Walter Mitty was an invention of the great humorist James Thurber. He first appeared in a short story in The New Yorker just one week after I was born. Can this be coincidence? Walter instantly became an American hero, a mild-mannered man apparently living a boring life in suburban Connecticut. But his real life was all in his daydreams. While doing the family shopping, Walter imagined that he was a famous surgeon, a fighter pilot, even a killer. His imaginary life was infinitely richer and more exciting than anything the suburbs had to offer.

There’s no mystery about why this short story became so popular, and has been reprinted and filmed so many times. Walter is all of us – apart from the tiny percentage of people who really do live exciting and important lives. What do you dream about when you are at the shopping mall? Probably you dream about being somebody else and somewhere else much more interesting.

It is sad but true that everyday life is dull most of the time, and we spend a lot of energy trying to escape from ordinariness. That’s why most dramas and soap operas focus on the extraordinary moments – the illnesses, accidents, love affairs, crimes and disasters that rarely come crashing in to disturb our real routines. It’s hard to make entertainment out of the quiet bits in between, when nothing much happens. As novelist, John Barth, commented: “Realty is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.”

So we are very good at planning escapes, and we need them. Some researchers have suggested that in fact a large proportion of all our mental activity is just that – an attempt to get away from reality. We may daydream about grand adventures, like Walter Mitty, or simply about travel to some exotic place, or a new house, or a better job. Some unlucky people find their escapes in in drugs, or madness.

Others leave reality behind by immersing themselves in hobbies, or the tribal comforts of sports or politics, special interest groups, or esoteric beliefs, or dreams of wealth and power. They’re all alternatives to everyday life, and it’s not necessary to do anything to enjoy them. In a former age people read books for an effortless escape, and a few antiquarians still do. Now Electronic escapes readily available on a billion screens. Just about everybody has a secret life. If you don’t have one, you can easily get one.

These secret lives tend to stay secret, because they are embarrassing. If you really want to be a NASCAR driver or a fashion model or a vampire, it’s probably best not to mention it to anybody. Fantasies, like vampires, tend to evaporate as soon as they are exposed to the cold light of day, and the more extreme fantasies may get you locked up. Yet how much more we would understand about other people if we knew the landscapes of their secret lives.

Of course I have a secret life too, but you may have to wait a while for the movie.

The Book Marathon of Summer

Summer reading is one of those traditional pleasures, like family fun, that exists largely in the realm of fantasy. You could say of summer reading what Mark Twain said about the weather: that everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. The decline of reading in general is well documented, and serious reading is in free fall. But the paradox is that as reading declines the number of books continues to expand relentlessly. The paradox is even more apparent at this time of year when the newspapers and magazines hit us with their “Summer Reading Supplements,” each one thicker and more daunting than the last. One, from a fairly well known New York newspaper, was thirty seven pages long and reviewed or recommended over a hundred books. How long do the editors think summer is?

If it makes you feel any better I can tell you that it is even worse in France. The summer book supplements are heavier, more intellectual, and much more daunting. A survey in March came up with the heretical finding that a substantial majority of French people actually believe that books are better than the Internet.

This raises an intriguing question: in what sense if any are books better than the Internet? I love books because I prefer to live in the past, but I know that computers and portable devices can deliver the same information and entertainment, usually faster and often cheaper. So why bother with a clumsy, old-fashioned technology that is four thousand years old and uses up an alarming number of our vanishing trees?

To answer this unwelcome question I did some research. This consisted of sitting in the room where I usually work, staring at the computer screen for a few minutes, and then revolving on my chair to look at the books on the walls.

The answer, when it came, was obvious. There is just one computer, and potentially it can bring me most of the knowledge in the world. That’s the thing, “potentially.” There are a few hundred books, and they are here already, in the room. Some I have read and some I haven’t, but they are here. And by being here as solid physical objects they remind me of all the things I don’t know, but should. Here, for example, is a thick book, by Alex Ross about twentieth century music called The Rest is Noise. bought many months ago and not yet read. It is almost seven hundred pages long. Would I pull up seven hundred pages of text on the computer to learn Mr. Ross’s opinions about twentieth century music? Not likely. The blank computer screen is totally forgiving, it lays no guilt on me for my laziness. But the book will sit there glaring at me until I read it. Likewise the huge Encyclopaedia Brittanica volumes in the library, in their black and gold bindings, are a constant reminder that I know almost nothing about anything. When it comes to ignorance your friendly, undemanding computer is a co-conspirator, an enabler.

It may be, let’s hope, that political chaos and anxiety will drive people back to the refuge of reading. Books are still the most economical and most engaging form of escapism. At the library the other day I had to wait in a long line to check out my books. This has never happened before, and it must surely be a good sign. If we ever lose our books we will lose our guilt about not reading books, and then what will become of us?

The Bottomless Well of Ideas

When I was regularly teaching writing courses one of the questions I heard most often was: “Where do you get your ideas?” The true answer is that I get my ideas in the following places, in order of fertility:

1. The Avalon Nature Preserve, Stony Brook, Long Island.
2. In the car, driving almost anywhere.
3. In the bath.

Different people find different places stimulating, but those are mine. I never have ideas when sitting at my desk, or in the library, or when I am deliberately trying to get ideas. The process happens, mysteriously, elsewhere. In the right situation, ideas just come popping into my head from the chaotic storeroom of the subconscious.

There’s an awful lot of nonsense talked about “inspiration,” especially at writers’ conferences. We are what is in our minds. There is no mysterious treasure house of ideas waiting to bubble up into consciousness at the right moment, any more than there is a gourmet meal lurking at the back of the refrigerator if you didn’t put the ingredients in there first. What is in the brain is everything we have put there over the years, by experience and reading and reflection. That’s what we have to work with. We get out what we put in, and no more. As they used to say in the computer world, GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). You won’t write like Proust if you only read Stephen King, which I suppose is a good argument for not reading Proust. Many great writers of the past, like Melville, read almost nothing but the Bible.

If you wait to be “inspired” by an idea you may wait forever.

In theory there is no limit to the number of ideas. Georges Simenon, the French author of five hundred novels and numerous shorter works suggested in his autobiographical Notebooks that every writer has a limited lifetime stock of ideas, and must eventually run out and confront the awful choice between silence and repetition.

Having written that, in the 1960s, he continued to produce new ideas and new books for twenty years until he died.

I’ll go along with Simenon. Any writer living in this fantastical world has a bottomless well of ideas to draw on. If you can’t think of anything to write about I would suggest spending more time in the bath.

Show and Tell

“This is the only country in the world that has more adulterers than readers.”

Neil Simon

One Sunday I was returning from work at the radio station in Connecticut to my home in Long Island, a journey that involves a ferry ride. It was early evening and the roads and the ferry were deserted. The bar on the boat was completely empty. I perched on a stool and chatted to the barman, until a smartly dressed young woman came crashing through the doors, installed herself on the stool next to me, and demanded: “Where’s the television.” All four screens in the bar were blank. The barman explained that the satellite link was down, and the young woman buried her face in her hands in real distress.

“There’s nothing to see,” she wailed, “And I didn’t bring any music.”

“You could watch the scenery,” I suggested. This is a particularly pretty ferry ride and it was not yet dark. She looked at me in disbelief, so I gallantly passed over the front section of The New York Times, which I had been intending to read. She looked as if I’d given her a live toad.

“I don’t read,” she snarled, “Not since school.” And she slammed out of the bar, presumably in search of a passenger with a functioning laptop.

I know this is an often-told tale, and I apologize for that. But it matters that huge and growing numbers of educated middle class Americans simply do not read at all. It’s not that they don’t read Proust or Joyce: they read nothing. This is something we can all observe in public places. I travel on this same ferry every week and there may be as many as two hundred people in the main cabin. If I can count ten reading a book or a newspaper I consider it a good day for literacy. Most of the travelers simply stare into space, talk on their cell phones, or watch one of the several TV screens. The kids crowd around the video games in one corner.

The statistics are dramatic. Fewer than half the American population reads for pleasure, a decline of ten percent in the past ten years. Similar changes have been documented in Europe.
The steepest decline in reading habits has been among children and young adults, whose reading has dropped by almost twenty percent in the same period. One in five of American adults now reads below fifth grade level.

“Old-fashioned reading – the kind that requires a full-length book and rapt attention – is vital to self-development. It gives us a private space in which to explore human complexity, practice empathy and broaden our horizons. By contrast digital distractions like Facebook and Twitter show us a flattened version of life in which humans are reduced to a set of ‘likes’ and ‘hits’.” (David Micics, The New York Times, 2014)

Philosophers and sociologists have been mulling over this change for more than forty years. We built our culture on print, and the popular use of books goes back more than four hundred years. In the sixties the Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan argued that western civilization is sliding backwards from written culture to an oral/visual culture, where pictures and talk will be the only things that matter. He even predicted the “re-tribalization” of society, and approved of it, claiming that reading is a divisive, elitist activity while video culture can be and is shared by everybody, including those who are illiterate.

The historian Daniel Boorstin zoomed in on that last fact. In his book The Image he proposed the reverse argument: that losing literacy means losing freedom, because mass-manufactured images make it easy to manipulate vast numbers of people, not just in terms of advertising but in the very way they see and think about the world. Switch on the TV and run through all the channels. Everything is the same, everybody looks the same and speaks the same and thinks the same and acts the same and consumes in the same way. Go to the bookstore and look at an equivalent number of books and I guarantee that you’ll find an outrageous, mind-boggling variety of characters, attitudes, lifestyles and philosophies. Print is still relatively decentralized compared to the TV/video/film industries. Four or five corporations now control almost everything we see and hear on the mass media.

The Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse took the argument one step further. In One Dimensional Man he argued that this process was already complete, and that almost nobody (except Professor Marcuse himself) could think outside the box devised by the mass media. We are already media zombies, like those depicted in the classic dystopias Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World.

The trouble is – and here we come to the nub of the matter – that some of the images that have replaced printed words are so damn good. The genius of America flowed westwards into Hollywood, and now produces an almost irresistible dream landscape for the entire world – a landscape that can be vividly experienced and understood with no mental effort or literacy skills.

We lived in the linear, logical, complicated, frustrating world of the printed word for almost half a millennium. Words are hard, but images are easy. Some pundits say that Gutenberg’s long party is over, and we have been pushed and pulled into the age of images that short-circuit the thought process and hit us with the force of pure emotion.

“I don’t read – not since school.” Please, tell me it’s not so.

Politics and the English Language

It is usually a waste of time to suggest that: “Everybody should see this” or “Everybody should read that,” because “Everybody” pays absolutely no attention. But I make an exception in this case. In a political season, everybody should read or re-read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” It doesn’t take long, perhaps ten minutes to absorb the whole thing, and it works like a kind of linguistic flu shot. Next time a toxic cloud of political rhetoric comes your way you will find to your surprise and relief that you are completely immune.

Orwell’s essay is more than half a century old, but it is as on target now as it was then. His subject is political language which, in his words, “Is designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He attacks the clichés that political candidates have always loved, and still do: our children’s future, the healing process, to reach out, time for change, vision, diversity, this great state, this great nation – and of course the ever popular at this point in time and going forward – all ways to keep talking while saying nothing. Such clichés are a sure sign that the speaker is not thinking, and doesn’t expect his audience to think either.

Then there are what Orwell calls “Verbal false limbs” – empty phrases whose only purpose is to avoid direct and unambiguous verbs and nouns: to render inoperative; to militate against; to have the effect of – instead of simple words like stop, prevent, cause. And pretentious words for simple things: expedite and clandestine instead of speed up and secret, ameliorate and liquidate instead of improve and kill.

Above all political language is full of code words and phrases that are essentially meaningless: family values, natural resources, human rights, the melting pot, the American dream, fair trade, global leadership, national security and so on. These all sound splendid, but they are impossible to define. We are all in favor of human rights, for example. But what does it mean? Nobody can agree.

To be fair it’s not easy being a politician in an age of total exposure, at least not at election time. Candidates must talk continuously, unhesitatingly, and with apparent authority about all the wonderful things they will accomplish if elected. Any sign of a pause for thought will be penalized by the electorate and the media as a sign of indecision. No thoughts are allowed, let alone second thoughts. At the same time candidates must keep the words flowing without ever saying anything clear or definite that will be held against them later.

Politicians depend very heavily on their speechwriters, who have made this kind of non-communicating language into an art form. We have seen how the TV pundits and comedians are reduced to silence when their writers go on strike. A strike of political speechwriters would be interesting. Perhaps we would hear the candidates’ real voices at last, or silence, which would be even more revealing. Or perhaps the striking comedy writers might be persuaded to cross the political picket line and bring their satirical skills to the campaign trail. Then at least we would get some entertainment out of the democratic process.

Since we can’t make much sense of what politicians say, it all comes down to how they look, and how we feel about them. This may be a good way to choose a piece of fish or a new hat, but it’s an insane way to choose a political leader. We need to know how they think, and what they would say if they could only find the words.

Read it Out Loud

The habit of reading aloud to children is slowly dying out. Busy parents prefer to settle their little darlings down with the TV or a video. This seems a shame to me, because I was the beneficiary of countless hours of reading aloud by my parents, Not only was it a very warm and companionable thing, but it allowed me to see my parents as magical storytellers, so I have admired storytellers ever since. My father was a particularly good reader, having a resonant voice, good timing, and a gift for imitation. The family myth is that, at a very young age, I learned all my favorite stories by heart, so they could never get away with skipping a page, or even a single line.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was normal for literate families to read aloud to each other, just as it was normal for them to play music together. Now the mass media have made those sociable habits largely redundant. Most of us, if called upon to read from Shakespeare, or even from the morning paper, will make a sad mess of it. We don’t have the skills that come from having the habit.

Yet how reassuring it is to hear a familiar voice beginning a familiar story. The voice draws us in, as plain print does not. We can lift our eyes from the printed page, the smallest distraction is enough to break its spell. But a voice holds our attention

“The mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters, then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms.”

That’s the opening of Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, the story of a mole, a water rat, a toad and their friends in the English countryside. I loved that book as a child, and knew every word. After that first paragraph I still want the story to go on, to hear how Mole abandoned his spring cleaning and burrowed up into the sunshine and met the water rat, and all about their adventures. But I want someone to read it to me, I want to hear it.

Familiar opening lines draw us in like a magnet. This is one you know.

“Old Marley was dead to begin with, there was no doubt whatsoever about that.”

Or, how about this?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Or this, a little more tricky:

“For a long time I would go to bed early. Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes closed so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself: ‘I’m falling asleep.’”

If you recognized the opening of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past you get the A. Here’s an easy one.

“Call me Ishmael.”
Most book addicts will recognize all those openings without difficulty, and that’s the point. They stand for the whole unfolding story, the story that we know already and we want to hear again, like a child at bedtime.

So for some real old fashioned entirely free home entertainment choose a good story, preferably a mystery or a ghost story, gather your audience, and read it out loud.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Don’t Believe Everything You Read

“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

Mark Twain

The difference between a personal essay and a memoir is that a memoir is all about me and an essay is only partly about me, “Whatever my subject it is myself that I portray.” wrote Montaigne, with his usual disarming honesty, and most essayists would have to admit the truth of it. The essay is an intimate form, but a true memoir is even more limiting. A memoir demands both intimacy and authenticity, which is more than most of us can manage.

In writing workshops, when we were trying to make a piece of personal memoir more interesting, more dramatic, or more humorous, there was always one writer who complained: “But it didn’t happen like that” – to which my rather unkind response is: “Who cares?” Unless you are writing a presidential memoir, or some other piece of future history, the precise details of what happened, how and when are irrelevant, even if you think your memory is infallible, which it never is.

So, problem number one for the memoirist is that memory is not necessarily a source of truth, which suggests in turn that biographical truth is simply not available to us. We can be fairly sure of some things like our birth date and the places where we have lived, but the rest is very much like a dream. Any given memory or recollected emotion may be true or false.

Problem number two is that we hate to admit problem number one. We have been collectively brainwashed into believing that any expression of personal experience must be accepted as authentic, just because it is personal. This is the driving force behind the tidal wave of irrationalism and craziness that washes over us every day – from the supermarket tabloids to religious extremists, flying saucer cultists, conspiracy theorists and writers of phony memoirs. We are willing, at least on the surface, to accept untested personal testimony as truth. It took years to expose Dave Pelzer, the author of the fake memoir A Child Called It, because nobody cared. The stories had that slippery quality that Steve Colbert called “truthiness,” or the quality of feeling true. Pelzer’s fictions were eventually challenged, but his books continued to sell well.

Let’s pose the deceptively simple question: Is it okay for non-fiction writers to lie to their readers while pretending to tell the truth? This could take us into the farthest reaches of philosophy, where I’ve been before and don’t want to go again. So let’s try to keep it simple.

Written experience is false by definition. As soon as we set out to put anything into words, the experience itself is changed, however “genuine” it was at the time. The philosophical movement called “deconstructionism,” represented by Jacques Derrida, whose very name gives me a headache, proposed that what gets left out in the process of creation is just about everything that really matters. This may be the case, but if we want to preserve any literature at all we have to swallow hard, and ignore it.

No writer can keep up a steady output without seeking out, or drawing on, or making up artificial life experiences. Everyday life is too dull, or at least mine is. In search of material for essays and commentaries I’ve been to the yoga class, worked in a bookstore, flown a tiny, flimsy plane, hiked a remote trail in midwinter, and done dozens more improbable things, simply in order to write about them. If I wait for something interesting to happen to me I may never have anything to write about.

“News” is meant to be different. In 2004 a series of scandals at The New York Times, The Boston Globe and other respected papers revealed that a few reporters and feature writers had been making their stories up. Although the shock reverberated through the world of journalism, most veteran writers took it all with a pinch of salt. We all make stuff up. My very first job, as a sixteen-year-old apprentice journalist, was to invent short items to fill blank spaces on slow news days, and, as mentioned earlier, I later graduated to writing letters to the editor and then answering them.
Although similar practices were widespread, I think we all had a pretty clear idea where the borderline lay between a minor dishonesty, the journalistic equivalent of a white lie, and an important deception. In other words we knew how to distinguish between entertainment news and real news. Real news deals with political, economic and social issues that affect people’s lives. Entertainment news deals with sports, celebrities, fashions, and all the trivia on the margins of culture. If you can’t tell the difference you shouldn’t be a journalist. My journalistic career was short, probably for this reason.

Most freelance writers are not reporters but creators. We don’t watch the AP wire, and we don’t feel bound by the rules of reporting taught in journalism schools. We are in the entertainment business, and we can’t possibly experience everything we write about. What kind of state would Ian Fleming have been in if he’d been through all the traumas suffered by James Bond? We won’t even ask about Barbara Cartland or some of today’s Chick Lit authors. The job of the writer is the recreation and transformation of the quotidian. That’s why TV soaps take place in hospitals, or police stations, or in families that suffer a major emotional trauma every twenty-four hours. Their lives are infinitely more interesting than ours, simply because they are so false. Joseph Heller played with this paradox in his novel Something Happened, a book in which almost nothing happens until the end.
.
The creator of memoir, non-fiction or faction is necessarily sailing without a compass across a limitless sea of ambiguity. So-called narrative writing or creative non-fiction is enormously popular today, even in newspapers. Narrative is always false, there’s no way around it, because reality never conforms to the stylish contours of fiction. My mother always told me: “Don’t believe everything you read,” and I never have.

Facts are essential for a scientist and occasionally useful for an academic, but stories are more fun for writers and their readers. Which would you rather read – A Comprehensive History of Magical and Alchemical Practices in the Early Middle Ages or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? I rest my case.

Your Fabulous Public Library

“The pride and presence of a professional football
team is more important (to a city) than thirty libraries.”

Art Modell

The public lending library is the only one hundred per cent good and useful human institution. Schools keep kids off the street and provide driver education, but there must be cheaper ways to do this. Hospitals are as likely to kill you as cure you. Churches do more to push us apart than to bring us together. Only public libraries offer an efficient, life-enhancing, risk free, non-denominational service that benefits everybody. I still can’t believe that all the knowledge and all the literature in the world are available there for nothing. Colleges and universities may hand out credentials, but in a library you can get an education.

The history of libraries goes back to way before the printed book, and it’s really the history of civilization. A famous early librarian was the Grand Vizier of Persia in the 10th century A.D. Abdul Kassem Ismail never travelled without a library of 117,000 volumes carried by a caravan of dour hundred camels. Legend has it that they were trained to walk in alphabetical order, though not according to the Dewey Decimal System.

The fate of books and authors is inextricably tied to the fate of libraries. In spite of Doctor Johnson’s sly joke that “ No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library,” libraries are more than mausoleums for the works of dead writers. They are the main showcase for new writing talent, and the place where most of us learn the reading habit. The establishment of free public libraries in the nineteenth century was probably as important as public education in the spread of literacy. Writers should love and support their local public libraries, the way duck hunters support the protection of wetlands. This is where new readers are hatched.

I got a good start on the library habit because we had the most magical local library. This was in East London in the 1940s, just after the end of the Second World War. Most parents evacuated their children to the country during the war. But for some reason my parents kept me there, right under the path of the bombers heading for the London Docks. It made for a rather exciting childhood.

Our local library was hit by a bomb before I was old enough to get my first library card. Architecturally speaking, this was no loss. It was one of those ugly box-shaped 1930s “modernist” buildings in red brick. Most of the books were saved. In those days, libraries had nothing but books: no CDs, no recorded books, no videos, no internet access computers, no files of college catalogs or job opportunities: just books, if you can imagine it.

The books were moved across the street to an old Victorian house that had belonged to our family doctor, who had succumbed to a fifty-a-day cigarette habit. This house was never designed to be a library. It was full of tiny rooms, twisting staircases, nooks and crannies. There was lots of polished wood and brass door handles, and even some stained glass in the Victorian taste. It was a librarian’s nightmare, but a child’s dream.

That was my first library, and I still remember it with great affection. If I could go back half a century in time, I think I could go right to my favorite shelves. Imagine this crazy old house, like something the Adams family might have lived in or Charles Dickens might have dreamed up, just stuffed with books. There were books piled on the stairs and landings, books in every room including the bedrooms and the bathroom, the doctor’s old consulting room, and in the attic. A lot of the original furniture was there too, so it was more like the home of a mad book collector than a public library. It was truly an enchanted place, just what a child imagined a library should be. There were no long straight rows of shelves under bright lights, but instead this magnificent chaos, full of dark corners and surprises.

The librarians made a feeble attempt to segregate children’s books in one of the upstairs rooms, but there was no way they could keep an eye on kids in that place. So we roamed everywhere, and read everything, especially all the things that were specifically forbidden, getting an accelerated education in the process. It was better than the World Wide Web, because at least the searching gave us some exercise.

When I was about ten years old, I fell in love with one of the apprentice library assistants. Her name was Elizabeth and she must, have been about fifteen or sixteen, irretrievably out of my reach. So I had to worship her from afar, or at least from the other side of the circulation desk. Elizabeth had a sweet, intelligent face, as librarians should have, and wonderful long, white, flexible wrists. I will never forget her graceful wrist action when she stamped the dates on the books and removed the little ticket inside that was used to keep track of our borrowings before computers came along. I always hoped that Elizabeth would look closely at that ticket. I wanted her to lmow what I was reading.

When she was on duty, I took out all the best books: novels by Dostoevsky, Flaubert and Trollope, poetry, history, and science, hoping she would notice. When she had days off, I took out the books I really wanted to read: funny books from P.G.Wodehouse and W.W.Jacobs, war stories, sea stories, adolescent tales by J. Arthur Ransome, the things a ten year old reads, or used to read.

So, because of that library and that young apprentice librarian, my early reading was perfectly balanced between the best and the worst, between highbrow and lowbrow, literary treasures and literary rubbish. Ever since that time, libraries for me have been not just magical places where you can find all the stories and knowledge in the world, but romantic places where love might strike at any moment.

Librarians may think that they are working to provide a routine public service. But I decided at a very early age that libraries and librarians exist to be loved. In our moments of deepest need, when our career is on the rocks, when mice have eaten the inside of the German dictionary, when it’s absolutely imperative to know the name of Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife or the migration patterns of the evening grosbeak, there’s the library and the librarian, always willing to help, usually smiling more-or-less patiently, finding the right answer much more reliably than a priest or a doctor. What could be more romantic than to be the guardian of all of humanity’s knowledge, and all its best fantasies? Our local library has a sign above the reference room: “Google can give you a hundred thousand answers, but a librarian can give you the right answer.”

Libraries are the world’s greatest bargain, and one of the best human inventions – better than Interstate highways, better than Walmart, better even than schools, because schools narrow down the learning process, and libraries open it up. I would even go so far as to say that libraries are more important than the NFA and the NRA put together, although I know this is sacrilege.

Schools and colleges are no longer reliable producers of literacy and good reading habits. That leaves the libraries and the librarians in every community, who act as a kind of independent education resource, a university without a curriculum or tuition fees. A public library is very much like what Thomas Jefferson wanted the University of Virginia to be. It allows people of any age to catch up with their education when and how they like.

It’s not too much to say that public libraries bring civilization to the suburban wilderness, and preserve books, like the monasteries in the Dark Ages. Of course, resources are scarce, that goes with the territory. When did you ever know government to put money into something useful? That is as it should be. The relationship between money and social value is always inverse and librarians should take heart from the fact that their poverty is a measure of their real importance to society.

The public libraries I grew up with were mostly small, dark and completely quiet. They had a special musty smell, and were guarded by formidable gray-haired ladies who treated their books like precious relics, loaned to little barbarians like me only with the greatest reluctance. This gave me an early sense of the value of books, and the advisability of being nice to formidable gray-haired ladies, both useful lessons in life.

Public libraries have suffered from the same process of stupidification as everything else in our culture. They are now are more like family entertainment centers than temples of learning: bright colors, plenty of cheerful noise, walls of videotapes, and the popular facility of Internet access so that clients can spend hours getting the information they could get in five minutes from the books all around them, if there are any. Libraries are cutting down on books, so as to pay for all the new technology. Books not often checked out, or not reviewed by Oprah Winfrey, may be deleted from the collection. I was happy to read an item in Atlantic Monthly about so-called Guerrilla Librarians who borrow or hide little-used books in order to save them.

Sometimes when I’m wearing my professor hat, people complain to me about how much higher education costs these days. My reply is always the same. “If you want a certificate, you’ll have to pay a fortune for it. If you want knowledge, or wisdom, or comfort, or inspiration, you can get them all for nothing at your public library.”

On Human Nature

“He has a profound contempt for human nature.
Of course he is much given to introspection.”

Tallyrand

“Human nature” is an all-purpose cliché. We know you can’t change it, but we also know that it is infinitely variable. Any and all unpleasant habits of the species are routinely dismissed as “Only human nature.”

This sort of thing drives philosophers crazy – and also sociologists, anthropologists, human biologists, psychologists, and anyone at all who has spent more than ten minutes thinking about or studying “human nature.”

I’ll drop the quotation marks, but only because they are so annoying. In ancient times few people thought about human nature. The Greek philosophers did, as they thought about everything. For Plato human nature was a divided thing – the intellect on the one hand and the animal appetites on the other. For Aristotle human nature had a higher purpose, which is not very clear (at least not to me).

The debate languished for about two thousand years, during which the church had a monopoly on the definition of human nature in the west. Man was a sinful, fallen creature who could only be saved by authorized agents of the church, for a price.

This brilliant scam began to fall apart in the eighteenth century. Hobbes gave us a view of human nature as inherently vile – driven by greed and fear. Rousseau offered a different view: human nature is basically good but corrupted by Society. Locke suggested a kind of rough balance, in which human beings are rationally inclined to protect themselves and their possessions, and evolve rational systems to achieve this (e.g. liberal democracy). The modern western world has followed Locke.

Since then theories about human nature have proliferated, and I don’t have the time nor the patience to chase them all down. The point is that when we talk about human nature we are always talking nonsense. Nobody has the slightest idea what it is, or whether such a thing even exists.

Yet we all have an implicit, automatic view of human nature which shines through in our lives. For some it’s all hatred and mistrust, for others it’s all love and understanding. The former group tends to monopolize the best jobs and political positions, for obvious reasons. Everything we do gives these assumptions away. Mark Twain was profoundly cynical about people, but his humor helped the medicine go down. Hemingway was captivated by an illusion of masculinity, Virginia Woolf by an illusion of tragedy. I suppose the people and writers we like the best are those who share our particular view of human nature..

It would save us all a lot of time in the library if books could be coded according to the author’s view of human nature (“C” for cynical; “R” for romantic; “O” for optimistic; “T” for tragic, “I” for ironic, and so on). When you settle down to read in the evening it’s nice to know that you have an understanding friend for company