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23. Why Read?

I was read to before I learned to love reading. My sister and I would lay attentively, tucked into our twin beds as my father’s slow melodic voice lulled us to slumber. As he sat reading I would fall in and out of new and familiar worlds, and although I can’t remember any of the books he read, I can remember the feeling being read to gave me: it was comforting.

Perhaps being read to made me lazy, I don’t remember reading much as a child. I was further behind in literacy than most of my year. It wasn’t till University, a little after University in fact, that I would find reading a prerequisite for happiness. Suddenly books were something I had to read, rather than an extracurricular activity to take or leave.

There is a magnificent power to literature, both in fiction and non-fiction, that nothing else in life can give you. My family never had the money to travel beyond Cornwall, I don’t have the money to travel beyond Europe. Yet I’ve seen Canada, China and Australia without needing to leave my living room. I’ve travelled through time, into space, through wars and into the minds of others. When fiction is at it’s best I’ve dropped periodically into experiences so vivid I have trouble separating them from my own. Reading is an inexpensive tool to expand the mind, both intellectually and emotionally.

Reading inspires me to act in the world – not just participate. I understand others better, I am more accepting of difference and more aware of social injustice. I fight ignorance with each new book while simultaneously realising how much more I have to learn.

As saccharine as it sounds, reading makes me think anything is possible.

To quote George R. R. Martin’s Jojen Reed:

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

Why read? Why live once when you can live infinitely.

Alice Farrant writes the blog ofBooks.org. Follow her on Twitter: @nomoreparades.

Spoken Word: Martin Amis at the Edinburgh Festival, 24th August 2014

Martin Amis has just completed his second novel on the Holocaust – the first being Time’s Arrow, published in 1991, which he describes as “highly stylized and abstract”. His latest offering, The Zone of Interest, which he appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival to promote, is neither of these. He was very honest about this subject occupying much of his time between both works, describing himself as “obsessed”, and his references suggest he has read every work of authority on the Holocaust, twice. He described his reasons for writing as a “throb to write a certain sort of novel”, which covers the compulsion without making it sound like a perverse addiction, for once.

The first thing to be underlined is that he was a compelling public speaker: articulate, urbane and very funny. He has the skill whereby he can take a useless question and weave it into something worthwhile for everyone in the room without causing offence. The second thing is that he spoke about the Holocaust in a way I had not encountered before; with a balance between lucid scholarship and biting irony that pronged one’s attention. One of his first remarks about Auschwitz (the setting for his novel, in fact it is the ambiguous backdrop for a love affair between an SS officer and his boss’ wife) was that “It was meant to be an earner.” The camp was unique in terms of its financial structure, as each prisoner was meant to have paid their own way through labour. Amis summoned the image of an immensely satisfied accountant marking balanced figures in the right column, before cutting through it deftly with the reminder that each figure only had a life expectancy of four months, at the most. He described the pervasion of fear in that setting: “With the pressure of death so close and vast in that place, the Kommendant only has to direct it at you.”

There are of course rules in writing this sort of book, more so than usual, arguably. One of his is that using Hitler’s name directly is crass: the Führer will do. I have no argument with this. Another of his rules is that he cannot not have a sex scene: despite having been nominated for the Bad Sex Award on several occasions (notably for Lionel Asbo, which reads like a bad dream), and commenting that men do not write sex as well as women, he clearly has not given up trying to improve. This is commendable on one level, and on another just slightly draining. He predictably makes the SS Commander’s wife sound like a wide barge/ cow hybrid, all soaring rump and beefy triceps.

He ventured into more interesting territory when he drew the contrast between the collective shame of the German nation, which will endure for as long as Jewish history is revisited, and the fanaticism springing within the last few years. He described the ageless Jewish attitude to conflict as being to wait out virulent aggression and then to negotiate, in order to try to seek terms. He feels this is unchanged. With regards to polar camps of belief, or even a zeugmatic way of life, he cited Ulysses for containing the clever use of cliché about the two inherited propositions in Ireland: Roman Catholicism, and anti-Semitism.

The analogy for ideology’s relationship with religion used to be methadone to heroine, however the last thirty plus years have proved that analogy to be flawed, as the former turned out to be fiercer than initially believed. When asked to compare the Second World War to ISIS his response was “nothing is so weird and awful that it can’t happen now.”

On that light note, the hour came to a close. Whatever the above may imply, his approach of fascinated analysis was not glutted with horrors, nor despairing complacency, but that of a man panning for patterns, and continually hunting for an answer to the ultimate baffling absurdity.

The Editors

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 1

Dante

in our mad flight we turned our oars to wings

Inferno XXVI

It has been suggested elsewhere on this website, somewhat unoriginally, that every time a reader picks up a book he or she embarks on a journey, often of intellectual discovery, but potentially also of the emotional, imaginative, or even spiritual variety (see Roomful of Mirrors). Indeed, J.M.G. Le Clezio, chief inspirer of this series of posts and author of the original essay “Reading as True Travel”, argues that reading offers a form of departure that extends far beyond the limits of physical travel:

The world’s mystery cannot be found through exploration: mystery resides rather in the world’s imaginable power.”

Certainly, it must be accepted that seeing more of the world will not necessarily open the traveller’s eyes to the infinite subtlety of the human mind (unless perhaps said traveller is the 17th Earl of Oxford on a controversial visit to Verona) and, to this extent, any parallels we may seek to draw between reading and travelling are limited: the results we can hope to achieve from each activity are distinct, albeit potentially overlapping. However, in this piece I would like to focus more on the similarities between what it is that drives us to pick up books, on the one hand, and book plane tickets, on the other.

Apologies for digging up Dante for a second week running, but I find it difficult to attempt to comprehend these underlying urges without referring to the Florentine poet’s conception of man as Ulysses preparing to embark on a final expedition, this time to the “unknown” half of the world that was thought to lie beyond the Pillars of Hercules (dividing Europe and north Africa). Dante sees Ulysses as the ultimate traveller, a hero perpetually and tragically in search of more. More what, exactly? More of everything, but most importantly more knowledge – “all men desire to know” – which is why he is a sort of anti-hero in the Inferno: he embodies both the desire for knowledge (always a delicate area where faith is concerned), and humanity’s inherently unsatisfied and restless nature.

There is no doubting the fact that the search for discovery and the pursuit of knowledge drive, to a large extent, our desire to read as well as our desire to travel. We read books to find out what happened and how things work, to marvel at other people’s imaginative creations, and, above all, to marvel at beauty (see Why Read? No.17). We travel for similar reasons. Moreover, we may return to books and places, but there is nothing quite like the joy of the new, of experiencing the hitherto unexperienced. As such, there is a large element of risk-taking in both reading and travelling – not in terms of physical danger, obviously, but in terms of whether or not we ultimately find what it is we set out to discover. After all, it is one thing to seek the contemplation of beauty, for example, but another altogether to strike gold in a way that is distinctly subjective and personal to us. We may be recommended books to read or places to visit, and yet it is almost impossible to foresee what it is that will move or impress us. It is not uncommon to put down a book or return from a holiday thoroughly uninspired by the preceding ‘journey’. Invariably, however, we trust that there is something out there for us, even if it is hidden away on the other side of the world. Something that would be good to see, something we must see.

Reading and travel are often viewed as activities of leisure, to be taken up in spare time away from the harsh reality of working life. I would suggest, on the contrary, that both are in fact often motivated by an underlying sense of urgency. See, for example, the frequency with which both inspire bucket-list discussions: “100 books/places to read/visit before you die”. That reading and travel might both reflect humanity’s consciousness of mortality is an idea that seems to surface frequently in Julian Barnes’ novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, not explicitly perhaps, but it lurks behind some of the more central themes. In particular, the story of Noah’s ark, which Barnes uses as one of many ‘pillars’ around which to base his 10 ½ narratives, connects the idea of salvation through physical travel to that of salvation through literature. That may seem a stretch but bear with me – the story of Noah is intended (in the Bible) both as a literal account of humanity’s survival by taking to the seas, and as an allegory for humanity’s salvation through faith. That faith is accessed and understood, at least doctrinally, via books, and the story of Noah appears in the first book of the Bible, Genesis

Medusa

So should we be more inclined to see readers (ourselves) as intrepid physical and spiritual adventurers rather than as armchair navel gazers? Probably not, but there is undoubtedly a desperate yearning at the root of much of our literary activity, a yearning caught between despair at the inadequacy of what we know is true, and the hope of what might be true in the as yet unexplored landscapes of some distant reality. Barnes once again manages to convey this exquisitely in his assessment of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa – a painting painfully split between an overwhelming sense of foreboding doom and a glimmer of hopeful expectation (see the tiny ship on the horizon). It is easy to imagine that Ulysses experienced something similar as he sailed beyond the boundaries of man’s earthly realm, glimpsing the mountain of Purgatory as he did, before being sucked down to the eighth circle of Hell.

The Editors

Dante’s Two Suns

“Soleva Roma, che ‘l buon mondo feo, 


due soli aver, che l’una e l’altra strada 


facean vedere, e del mondo e di Deo”

 

“Rome, which formed the world for good,

once held two suns that lit the one road

and the other, the world’s and that to God.”

 Purgatorio XVI

 

Dante Alighieri is well known for being the author of the Divine Comedy, probably one of the most important works written in the West in medieval times, given its continuing influence over the creative arts up to the present day. And yet not everyone knows his other works in quite the same way, particularly the Convivio and De Monarchia, which reveal his many interests and proficiencies as well as the staggering wealth and depth of his knowledge. As he shows off this encyclopaedic knowledge, certain themes crop up more than others, revealing the author’s particular interests. Perhaps the most prominent of these is politics. For Dante, to meditate on this theme meant to take stock of his own condition, so tragically determined by his political choices. Immersed in the Classical authors, Dante had assimilated the political thought of Aristotle and Cicero. As a result, he conceived policy as the way to create a pacific coexistence for citizens through laws and justice. In line with Classical ideals, Dante considered it a moral duty for everyone to be involved in political life if they had the capacity to do so. 

Being a politician in the Middle Ages was not exactly an easy ride. A centuries-old and at times ferocious struggle for supremacy was ongoing between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire. On the one hand, the pope wanted to exercise his power over the emperor as the head of a Christian nation. On the other, the German emperor was determined not only to obtain complete autonomy from the pontiff, but also to influence certain important decisions within the Roman Church, such as the designations of bishops and even the election of the pope. 

In the peripheries of the Empire, the tensions between these authorities reached a violent climax in Italy, at the time one of the richest parts of Europe, both culturally and economically. These violent conflicts, probably owing to the area’s proximity to Rome, were not only well documented in city records, but also in Dante’s own private reflections. There were two factions: the Guelphs, who traditionally supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines, allies of the emperor in opposition to the pontiff. The period was characterised by wars between neighbouring cities as well as within cities. This generated the climate of terror and bloodshed to which the Divine Comedy bears witness. The poet himself was banished from Florence and later sentenced to death for his political activism. It is worth noting the traditional reluctance of political theorists to deal with practical administration, from Aristotle to the early 16th Century. Indeed, only a generation after Dante, Petrarch, although he did write about the troubling Italian situation, carefully abstained from involving himself in it. In this regard also, the Florentine showed himself to be the brightest star in the Medieval cultural environment. 

Dante’s fascinating progression from Guelph to Ghibelline is not our main concern, however, as I would like to focus the discussion on his philosophical speculations, which were aimed at resolving the moral paradoxes of Christians who were involved in policy. To obey the rules of the Church or to obey the laws of the state? The debate was an age-old one, dating back as far as the 5th Century BC in Athens, when Antigone made her touching decision in Sophocles’ well-known tragedy. For the first time in the history of western literature, freedom of conscience had been recognised by the Theban heroine’s choice to prioritise the law of the gods over earthly laws. However the dichotomy which led her to sacrifice her young life remained intact and irreconcilable.

Dante recalled St Augustin’s idea from De Civitate Dei and developed it, enabling him to heal this rift by illustrating the autonomy and necessity of both institutions as they descended directly and naturally from God. His explanation was a philosophical one: given that man is made of body and soul, his nature is both corruptible and incorruptible. And as any nature must have a purpose, Dante found that living in peace was the purpose of the body, and eternal happiness the purpose of the soul. Moreover, he identified two guides appointed by God to lead the people towards those aims: the emperor was the leader of earthly life and the pope was the leader of eternal life. 

As such, he argued that the emperor must have unrestricted power, since only a person who has everything does not desire anything else, and is consequently in a position to treat people equally. (Some of you may remember an Italian Prime Minister who used the same argument to win votes, but the final result did not quite match up to the idea!). The pope, as the Vicar of Christ, was only supposed to be concerned with giving moral instruction to humanity in order to secure their salvation, while supposedly being immune to all power and riches.

Thus Dante, as a Christian and politician of the early 14th Century, was able to corroborate the “Two Suns Theory”, an early version of secularism according to which the Church and the empire were two separate entities that were both necessary for humankind. Although his philosophical thought is rigorously scholastic, the poet approaches problems from an ethical stance, rather than treating them purely speculatively. His reasoning is never merely an end in itself but a tool with which to discover the solution to existing problems and situations.

It doesn’t matter if much of our later reading gives Dante the role of a tireless and blind loyalist, belonging to an antiquated world. It doesn’t matter if he did not adequately consider the Italian bourgeoisie’s reinforcement as a pressing request of freedom and autonomy hardly compatible with the absolute power of the Emperor. It doesn’t matter if national kingdoms were appearing on stage as competing powers for the Holy Roman Empire, and therefore representing a serious threat for the political unity of Christianity. It doesn’t matter if Dante’s ideological structure, which he meticulously constructs in his works, was going to collapse like a house of cards.

The great Florentine writer and philosopher should not be considered as a laudator temporis acti; that is, an inactive, slow and pessimistic reader of contemporary society. Rather he should be considered as a man who courageously made his critical skills available for the advancement of society, which, according to him, was the only possible means to achieve the advancement of mankind, and therefore the only way to reflect the divine order on Earth.

Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer course in Sale Marasino, Italy – info: http://www.iseolakess.it

22. Why Read?

I was a sickly child. But I was fortunate in having a mother who was ambitious for me and who had a long shelf for my books built above my bed. I could reach my entire library without having to get up. Nearest to the pillow end were the ten volumes of my Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia. I don’t know who Arthur was, but he did a cracking encyclopaedia. It was not arranged alphabetically but quite arbitrarily, so it was perfect for browsing, rather like the London Library. It moved seamlessly from Mme. Roland ascending the scaffold (‘Oh Liberty! What crimes are committed in your name!’), a line I have never forgotten, through a cutaway drawing of the engine room of RMS Queen Mary to ‘Dusky Beauties’, pictures of women of the British Empire, always naked to the waist and frequently with discs the size of soup plates set into their lower lips, or long sharp pegs through their noses, parallel to the ground, as if they had been ambushed by someone with a bow and arrow.

Solid reading came next with the complete Sherlock Holmes long and short stories and then Conan Doyle’s Historical Romances. I particularly liked The White Company. Next on the shelf came my Arthur Ransome’s packaged by Jonathan Cape in handsome green covers. People call them the Swallows and Amazons books but that title is one of the dullest. Pigeon Post and We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea were my favourites. That reminds me of Enemy Coast Ahead, another great favourite; a shabby little Pan book about Guy Gibson. ‘It takes strength to fly a Lancaster’ it told me. Well, I could imagine corkscrewing the plane in an emergency and spiralling out of those dazzling searchlights. Next would be my Observers Book of Aircraft, small enough to fit in my blazer pocket, but actually I didn’t need it if I was out with my binoculars because I knew every aeroplane in the skies of England at the time. No, its well-executed three-views of the Hawker Hunter, the Avro 504 and the Bristol Brabazon (for example) were a kind of roughage for the imagination; I saw myself in them, or making models of them, or improving on them – another jet here, more sweepback there.

Herbert Ponting’s book about being the photographer on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole didn’t make me want to be an explorer, but may have led to my training as a photographer. There were books that one got out of the library but didn’t own. W. E. Johns’ Biggles books passed the time but didn’t win shelf room. I found books in other peoples’ houses that I would have liked to own. Emil and the Detectives (Kästner) was a joy to me and lives on in my mind 60 years later, and so does an American children’s book called Little Britches. I liked Hornblower and would have adored Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey novels; if only they had been available then! On the bedroom shelf was a curious little Penguin that I liked very much called I Was Graf Spee’s Prisoner, the true story of a merchant seaman whose ship had been sunk by the German pocket battleship. The war had only been over for seven years when I was ten and cast a long, strong shadow. I had two volumes of the government’s propagandist Britain at War series, one RAF, one Royal Navy. I pored over the pictures, but the text was unreadable. H. E. Marshall’s Our Island Story taught me some history and was useful if one had history prep. Also useful for prep was Pear’s Cyclopaedia which I was given every Christmas by an uncle. But this was a dangerous book, for its medical dictionary convinced me that I had a terminal pulmonary tuberculosis and ruined one Christmas as I waited for the blow to fall. If there were other books on my shelf, I have forgotten them. They failed, then, to be memorable and that is the first thing that a good read should be. Why read? Well, why live? Why think? Why dream?

 George Pownall

Spoken Word: Please Write Immediately

The Letters of Gustave FlaubertLove Letters from the poets at the Southbank Centre

As part of their Festival of Love, the Southbank Centre recently put on an event where Ben Lamb, Harriet Walter, Guy Paul, Laurel Lefkow and Jason Hughes read a wide expanse of love letters by writers. This was not an evening exclusively dedicated to romantic love: the letter Ted Hughes wrote to his son was the standout example. 

When Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne before going to Italy in an attempt to improve his health: “I do not write this till the last that no eye may catch it”, eight pairs of ears eagerly caught his wish that: “you could invent some means to make me at all happy without you”. Knowing that no such device exists, he prophetically signs off “I see nothing but thorns for the future”. 

Ezra Pound’s poem “The River Merchant’s Wife” was based on the 8th Century AD Chinese original, and balances nostalgia with imagery in a gently rolling rhythm to set up the first notion of reciprocated love when the future was not so much of a factor:

“You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

And we went on living in the village of Chokan:

Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.”

The mood veered from rapturous professions of first love between the Brownings “for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart– and I love you too”, to a pregnant widow in 16th century South Korea bidding farewell:

“How did you bring your heart to me and how did I bring my heart to you? Whenever we lay down together you always told me, “Dear, do other people cherish and love each other like we do? Are they really like us?” How could you leave all that behind and go ahead of me?

Come to me secretly and show yourself. There is no limit to what I want to say and I stop here.” 

The letter was recently discovered in the couples’ shared tomb.

In case that last veered on the excessively sad, Russell Edson’s letter to ‘Dear Miss’ may be the thing to save you: “I am interested in your mind: will you undress in front of me? Will you permit me the unparalleled pleasure of taking your clothes off? I feel that if I should have my penis in your vagina I should have your love”. Another source of amusement was the sequence of letters from Byron to Caroline Lamb, Clara Clairmont AND Teresa Guiccioli, all professing his undying love with equal fervour.  

The unpeeling and analysis of erotic love, as captured by the written word, was dealt with wryly by Anais Nin in her response to a ‘Collector’ who tried to commission her and Henry Miller to correspond with’less poetry and more sex’, for $1 a page. 

She opens with “We hate you. Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore. ”

Her teasing use of the pen as a blade is made concrete as she firmly immolates any commercial relationship with her patron: “We have sat around for hours and wondered how you look. If you have closed your senses around silk, light, color, odor, character, temperament, you must by now be completely shriveled up.”

A personal highlight was Flaubert’s letter to Colet on August 15, 1846 (partly because it confirms that great things DO happen in August, while cities are asleep except for tourists):

“I will cover you with love when next I see you, with caresses, with ecstasy.  I want to gorge you with all the joys of the flesh, so that you faint and die.  I want you to be amazed by me, and to confess to yourself that you had never even dreamed of such transports… When you are old, I want you to recall those few hours, I want your dry bones to quiver with joy when you think of them.”

No professions of love long beyond the reach of the stars or the reach of the moon for Gustave. That magnificent walrus moustache concealed an absolute groover, who paints the superb image of an elderly lady cackling with pleasure over a night of ecstasy decades later.

The Editors

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

Your Fathers Where Are TheyYour Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? - Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers is one of a rare breed of American writers (perhaps their leader?) capable of capturing complex emotional states with sophisticated bluntness.

His first book, A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius is the part biographical story of a young man coming of age, discovering the world in the company of his younger brother, for whom he has become responsible.

Those states of responsibility and liminal adulthood are picked up again in Your Fathers. The protagonist, Thomas, seeks to orient himself in the world (”I really am a clean cut guy. I’m just stuck in a tight spot right now”) and establish his sense of self by kidnapping a sequence of characters from his childhood who each represent a cut of the many facets of American hero culture; an astronaut; a retired war veteran-senator with no legs; Thomas’s mother; a teacher; a policeman.

As the story unfolds so too do the personal links connecting each of the kidnapped characters to Thomas, the astronaut was a class mate (”You told me one day you were going to go up in the Shuttle. Remember that?”), the teacher his old maths teacher who held ‘sleepovers’ for his students which Thomas’s mother would send him to. By a coincidence the policeman Thomas kidnaps turns out to have been present at the shooting of a disturbed student, a friend of Thomas’s. The plot falls into place around him like so many shackles.

More importantly, Your Fathers is a song to a generation born into peacetime and expectation. A world explored and conquered, a life cheapened and tainted. A generation, perhaps like all other generations, which looks at its forebears and thinks, ‘you must be joking’ but does not know how to change what they see before them. Thomas approaches his fate with a quixotic mix of action and resignation: ”After I took the astronaut, I figured I only have a certain window before I’m caught or found or something else happens to me, so I thought I might as well get it all figured out in one fell swoop.”

Eggers carefully stretches the boundaries between flippancy and premeditation (”You were the guy who came to the house to rewire the phones?”) demonstrating Thomas’s enormous capacity for positive action and crushing it against what on occasion seems like mental illness, but too often presents itself as the manifestation of the selfish modern cult of consumerist self-discovery in which everything, including the lives of others, are fodder to fill a yawning need for validation: ”But just yesterday, with the astronaut, I felt like I was on the verge of something, I was breathing better. And I know you’ll help me even more.”

Your Fathers deals with a very modern strain of issues of the self. A generation of disaffected young people, alienated from their peers, from the structures of social validation, born into expectation and abundance to which they feel an entitlement even when they lack the personal skills to access it. Written entirely in dialogue, it is a book which embodies the dysfunctional intergenerational dialogue that our society of abundance has fostered and created – a fierce, clear window into a world still being created.

The Editors

The God Argument

 GraylingThe God Argument – A.C. Grayling

Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” Mark Twain

With the carnage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still looming behind a fragile ceasefire, and with ISIS still rampaging their way across northern Iraq, now seems like a good time to talk about atheism. A.C. Grayling’s short book is essentially a step-by-step guide to giving up religion, with absolutely no ground conceded to my kind of wishy-washy agnosticism. Grayling takes us through each of the main arguments for religion before savagely but politely uprooting them and tossing them aside. The second part of the book is then a celebration of humanism, which is the author’s preferred alternative to God.

The book is chiefly memorable for the way in which Grayling goes about his business of dismantling preconceptions regarding religion, basically doing a lot of the intellectual groundwork that most of us can never summon the energy for. A particular favourite of mine is the manner in which he illustrates the nature of proof via Carl Sagan’s story of the invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire – the lesson being that an inability to invalidate a hypothesis is by no means the same as proving it true. The implications of this are twofold. Firstly, that redefining religion to fit modern science smacks of inconsistency. Secondly, that not being able to disprove the existence of something does not make the odds of its actual existence 50-50, as is sometimes assumed when we say we can’t know with absolute certainty that God does not exist. Grayling points out that this is exactly the same as saying we can’t know that fairies, goblins, unicorns or mermaids don’t exist, but we usually reconcile ourselves to the extreme improbability that they actually do.

More important than the powerful logic Grayling deploys in his favour, however, is the fact that the author is clearly motivated by a genuine preoccupation with the effect of religious belief in the world, and not by a proselytising desire just to make sure everyone agrees with him. I say this is important because I think a lot of atheistic thinkers get caught in the proselytising trap, Richard Dawkins being chief among them. This is, of course, not to say that they are necessarily wrong, but that the way in which they put forward their case harks back to a manner of ideological persuasion we might normally associate with religious preaching, not the opposite. In other words, more or less impartial observers of the religious debate, myself included, need to feel that it is more than a frenzied bout of intellectual masturbation – the stakes may be high but I have always preferred Sartre’s approach, which is to say that even absolute certainty of God’s existence wouldn’t deprive you of responsibility over your own actions (i.e. it should make no difference to how you choose to live your life).

Unfortunately, the reality is that organised religion does make a difference, and for the most part it makes a difference in a profoundly negative way, as has been made abundantly clear to everyone over the past few weeks. Grayling is uncompromising in setting out exactly what he finds distasteful about religion, from its fundamentally divisive nature, to the way it perpetuates itself by targeting children for indoctrination. The latter point is one that bears remembering – no one chooses which side of the wall they are born on.

The Editors

A life in books

StonerStoner – John Williams

This is a book about a man, William Stoner, who enters the University of Missouri at the age of nineteen to study agriculture and never leaves. It charts his progression from undergraduate student to professor of English literature within the university, depicting the trials and tribulations of his professional and family life. Ostensibly, it is not a book that tells a particularly interesting story, certainly not an extraordinary one in any case. Nor does it go into any particular detail about the focus of Stoner’s career as a student or as a teacher of literature; I can’t remember the period or any of authors he specialises in. And yet, Williams manages to convey an irresistible sense of the joy of Stoner’s vocation, starting with a vague awareness of his calling through to the publication of his first text. In fact, the most striking thing about the novel is the way it moves seamlessly through the protagonist’s life, stopping carefully to consider some of the key moments in it, but at all times adopting a detached perspective.

It is this detached perspective that allows the author to capture the vagaries of human life so convincingly, successfully mixing a sense of fatalistic abandonment with an appreciation of Stoner’s stoicism and ability to take stands on matters of principle. He has to make several difficult decisions, including to stay at the university to study literature rather than return to his parents’ farm as originally planned: “If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do.” However, despite these fleeting instances of self-determination, Stoner’s control over his life is limited in the extreme, as tends to be the case with every life when looked at in retrospect. Similarly, his contact with the outside world, and with history generally, is described in terms of transient encounters: the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression appear indirectly through other characters rather than as characters in themselves.

Perhaps it is the book’s grasp of the ephemeral that leads many to the conclusion that this is a melancholy novel about a thoroughly downtrodden individual. In many ways that assessment is correct, but it fails to do justice to the full extent of the novel’s scope. For starters, Stoner lives a life of relative comfort and is a man who loves his job. Williams spoke as follows of his protagonist: “I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing.” There is no doubt that, despite some moments of intense conflict and sadness, Stoner’s is a full life, which is more than most will experience. Williams manages to convey this in a thoroughly original manner, and it is a book that haunts the reader long after it has been put down.

The Editors

Tuxedo Park

Tuxedo ParkTuxedo Park: The Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II, by Jennet Conant

I have had a latent interest in amateur invention since I first read a book on Sir George Cayley. Cayley was a gentleman inventor, born in 1777  who practised his inventing on an estate in Cumbria that had been passed down through -six- generations of his family, along with his title.


Among his achievements were a fountain pen, a caterpillar track (for gardening), an aeroplane which it seems likely would have flown one hundred years before the Wright Brothers (Cayley died in 1857) had Cayley not half-killed too many of his butlers in prototypes so that none were willing to trial it.

He even confounded office clichés everywhere by literally re-inventing the wheel: using a hub and rim joined by spokes under tension he invented the wheel which is now common to most modern bicycles.

His particular interest in invention stemmed from the early encouragement of his mother. Recognising his ability and his interest in the mechanics of nature she encouraged young George to carry around a notebook and to record his observations. Early examples of his notetaking include a detailed analysis of the wings of a hummingbird – an early sign of his interest in flight.


The story of George Cayley is a seemingly purist tale of personal interest and exploration leading to creation and change. Somewhat luxuriously, Cayley’s explorations of science were disconnected from the market forces driving commercial discoveries and his ideas were permitted to gestate at their natural pace.

The story of Alfred Loomis is quite the opposite. Born to relative but not independent wealth, Loomis attended Harvard and then picked up the mantle of his family’s fortunes, starting out as a lawyer and then shortly after by forming a fund on Wall Street with a cousin and, as you might say, ‘cleaning up.’ Over the period of nine years they bought and held significant if not controlling interests in almost every major utility in America. During the Great Depression, Loomis’ personal wealth increased by nearly fifty million dollars.  

Moving from a largely non-existent, middle class affluence to an extreme of money and influence in his forties, Loomis bought himself the freedom to explore his exuberant scientific interests – including entertaining and sponsoring the greatest scientists of his age, and procuring vast quantities of the most expensive equipment then available to mankind.

His extraordinary intellectual capabilities (which included the ability to play at least two chess games at once with his backed turned to both boards whilst maintaining a lively conversation with his dinner guests) allowed him to pick up a new field of science in a few short months. His incredible financial wealth and broad connections, facilitated the introductions he required to attract the finest scientific talent in each field to his personal laboratory at Tuxedo Park, just south of New York where his voracious appetite for advancement drove great leaps forward in each field in a short space, before his attention to turned to a new topic following which the money, equipment and scientists were parcelled off to a long term home such as Harvard or MIT.

Among his interests (and his most significant discoveries) number a venture into the short wave radio spectrum which led to advances in portable radar such that it could be mounted on ships and aeroplanes, early understandings of brain wave patterns during sleep, advancements in fusion technologies (in particular the cyclotrons capable of generating sufficient voltage to split an atom) that made the splitting of the atom a reality and ended the war.

Having worked with Thomas Edison during World War I, he took to heart Edison’s belief that the US should spend on the advancement of its weaponry in peacetime, in order to have it ready for the arrival of conflict. The pattern of news from Germany in the ‘30s redoubled this conviction in Loomis, in spite of the Roosevelt government’s passive stance towards Hitler. One of Loomis’s first acts of patriotism in this regard was to build a scaled down and improved tank which he used to drive to the train station to collect his guests. Henry Stimson (a long-time friend of Loomis and then Secretary fo State to Roosevelt) reportedly announced “This is how one protects the country” as they drove to the Loomis mansion in Tuxedo.


Tuxedo Park presents Loomis as a dispassionate and deeply scientific man. He seems without vanity and without extremes of emotion; cold yet luminary, his achievements have outlived his name in most areas of his life. This book, Tuxedo Park, is a reminder of Loomis’s incredible potency and yet it is the only mark of his face left on an earth otherwise deeply scarred by some of the most impressive and atrocious discoveries that he was part of, none more so than the atom bomb.

That he has largely fallen from record, a side note in the margins of a colourful and often re-written history of our early twentieth century wars, is a mark of his amateurism. He existed in the margins and that is where he has remained. Yet it is clear that he was not an amateur by any means, not in the romantic sense and certainly not in the derogatory sense. He was a brilliant inventor, a gifted financier and an arch power-broker: perhaps he could not have successfully been one without the others, but it seems doubtful that such advances could have been achieved without that rare and extraordinary blend of skills – advances that stopped the course of a war and changed the world we live in forever. If there was ever an argument for reading in the margins, Alfred Loomis was its embodiment.

The Editors

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