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24. Why Read?

The rational benefits of reading have been extolled at length and are varied: it’s an educational pastime, it’s social, there’s a simple pleasure to visiting a well-stocked bookshop or library. But the thing that really interests me is the unquantifiable; the magical: it is the finishing of a book.

It is taking a second to let it settle in the mind and the heart. It is being in – and yet slightly apart from – your surroundings. It is getting on with the business of living after the book has happened to you.

The moment varies in intensity and spirit depending on what’s been read. Sometimes we move quickly on, with the lightness of an untroubled mind, immediately forgetting much of what we’ve just read. Sometimes we linger as we reintroduce the back cover and the last page, feeling heartbroken, inspired, bewildered or philosophical, as the book colours the way we take those first few steps back into the real world. For my part, the imagery conjured up by George Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia remains with me from the first reading; the lucid recollections leaving a permanent impression on an adolescent mind dealing with the challenges, responsibilities and myriad journeys of impending adulthood. Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming: not so.

The finishing of a book is a brilliant thing to experience oneself, but an even better thing to witness.

It’s a joy to watch someone close a book and try to judge how they felt about it from their actions and expressions.

This is what I see as the reader’s “decisive moment”, their pause after the curtain falls and before the applause sounds, the second between the apple striking Newton and the forming of an idea in his head. It’s the stillness and clarity and optimism of that single moment at the very end of any tome that keeps me coming back to the bookshop or library in search of my next conquest and compels me to encourage the same venturing spirit in you.

We never acknowledge it, but we avid book devourers are all in a club. And it’s changed our lives. It’s the Finishing a Book Club.

I call on you to renew your membership today.

Simon Thompson

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 3

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The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” Arthur C. Clarke

Having looked at a few of the classics of ‘travel’ or adventure literature in Part 2, I thought it would be worth considering the outer limits of the genre in this post. After all, it seems logical that after the full extent of physical or spatial travel has been exhausted, humanity and therefore literature should turn towards other less obvious modes of travel. Where to go in fiction when the world is no longer a mystery in reality? This seems a preposterous question to ask in the 21st century, but would probably have been less so in the 19th century, when the possibilities of spatial travel must have excited the imagination in a way that is difficult to comprehend nowadays. In fact, a brief glance at Jules Verne’s bibliography betrays the progressive fetishisation of adventure: we have a simple enough start with Five Weeks in a Balloon and The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, before we move swiftly to the more ambitious Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Mr Verne is quite obviously pushing the boundaries both of physical travel and of our appetite for exploration literature generally, probably to breaking point and beyond.

Even in the 19th century, there must have been a threshold for the public’s endurance of adventure fiction. Once a hero or heroine has gone up and down and sideways as much as is humanly possible, where to next? The answer I think can be found in the clear progression from R.L. Stevenson’s romantic adventure novels of the 1880s (Treasure Island, Kidnapped) to H.G. Wells’ science fiction of the 1890s (The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds). The first of H.G. Wells’ novels listed above represents a particularly interesting spin on the conventional spatio-temporal dimensions of the adventure novel. Indeed, the protagonist of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller, explicitly remains in the same location (a laboratory in Richmond, Surrey) whilst simultaneously embarking on a journey of discovery to the England of the distant future. This is thought provoking for a number of reasons. Firstly, in departing from the confines of spatial exploration, Wells subtly floats the notion that adventure is not merely the preserve of pirates and treasure hunters. In other words, whilst the Time Traveller remains locked in a laboratory, the adventure he undertakes is nevertheless very real.

This seems to be getting at the idea that the scientists of the 19th century were just as ambitious in their quest for discovery as the explorers of the geographic world. Within the context of the adventure story, the idea that a man or woman could emerge from a confined space and claim to have encountered something previously unseen and unheard of must have been nothing short of revolutionary, bordering on the mystical. And yet, that is of course what scientists have always done. In a way, this makes their exploration all the more authentic and noble: scientific explorers cannot always count on the admiration of a timid public when they emerge from their adventures; more often they are greeted with a general lack of understanding and dismissive mockery. This introduces another fascinating element to the classic adventure tale: the idea of the returning traveller shunned for having the temerity to look behind the veil of accepted reality. The Time Traveller cannot be fully understood or believed, which is presumably one of the reasons he chooses to embark on another quest the day after his dinner party, this time never to return. Once again we encounter a hero in the Ulyssian mould, a man driven by a lust for knowledge and adventure, but also perhaps alienated from his peers in mainstream society. It is not hard to imagine, after all, that Ulysses, having returned home to Ithaca after ten years of travel, would have struggled to convince Penelope that he had been kidnapped by a Cyclops.

The frustration of not being fully understood is the universal curse of the keen reader. When a reader emerges from the solitary world of book-reading, there will almost inevitably be a gulf between that reader’s appreciation of reality and everyone else’s. However much a book is dissected, explained and shared with others, the reading of it is inevitably a deeply personal experience. This is, of course, both terrifying and exhilarating: no one can do the reading for you, just as no one can visit Southeast Asia for you, which is why summaries and SparkNotes unfailingly miss the point. And when the heavy-lifting is done, when War and Peace lies conquered on your bedside table, no one is there to congratulate you or admire your newly-found intellectual acumen (or newly-found sense of existential despair). Any sense of triumph is purely your own, like a lone Himalayan climber who, having successfully reached a summit during the day, is forced to dig a one-man shelter in the side of the mountain at night.

The Editors

Book of Mammon, Part III: Zero to One

Peter Thiel - Zero to OneZero to One, Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters

The word entrepreneur must be so tired as to nearly be dead by now. Does that apply to freelancers and sole traders? Does it apply to people who go to big corporates and do something ‘entrepreneurial’. Roles at Unilever or Tesco described in this way don’t quite ring true but without a meaningful definition against which to measure claims, the word is apt for hijacking by pretenders of every shape.

One entrepreneur who could not be described as a pretender, Peter Thiel, has recently published a new book in this hectic pop-lit genre: Zero to One.

Thankfully, Zero to One is not a rags to riches, this-is-why-I’m -a-billionaire disaster like many of the books in the same category. The title refers to what Thiel considers to be the nature of entrepreneurship: creating something that did not previously exist.

Whilst the book itself is not a work of literature, it is of broader cultural significance because it taps the shallow of veign of contemporary business thought which at once shapes the world we live in and glances disappointingly off the surface. Thiel and Masters book measures well against the benchmarks of quality for the genre, like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders, or Dee Hock’s exceptional One From Many. It occasionally lapses into the generalisations that plague much of the genre but on the whole it is enjoyable for its structure, concision and insight if not into the business of high technology investment, then into one of the greatest technology investors of his generation.

Peter Thiel speaks with natural authority on the subject of successful technology companies and technology investing. He founded PayPal and led it as CEO until its public listing and acquisition by eBay in (2004?) and his venture capital firm, Founders Fund, was the first investor in Facebook. His latest company, Palantir, in which he is a co-founder and investor produces data analysis software that is being adopted by business and government across the world including the CIA and is rumoured to have been used in the CIA operation to track down Osama bin Laden. Whether it is true or not: such is the hype around Peter Thiel.

More interestingly, the book’s genesis is more nuanced than the usual business magnate’s PR excercise. The book’s co-author is a recent Stanford graduate called Blake Masters who came to Thiel’s attention after his detailed lecture notes on one of Thiel’s lecture courses at Stanford became an internet sensation. The book is in fact a collaborative write up and update of those notes, a sign perhaps of Thiel’s magpie-like eye for opportunity.

One key theme of the book is Thiel’s critique of competition. Better, he says, to operate a tiny monopoly than compete yourself to destruction in a giant market. ”Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.”

He gives light to the kind of low-tech decisions that his Founders Fund uses, in combination with some more sophisticated analysis to reach their conclusion: “cleantech executives were running around in suits and ties. This was a huge red flag because real technologists wear t-shirts and jeans. So we instituted a blanket rule: pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings” and on explaining why he has not invested in Uber, ”I prefer not to invest in business models that venture capital guys are too familiar with.”

His understated manner is refreshing in a world dominated by hyperbole; on the subject of his Facebook investment he said simply to a recent interviewer: “it’s a good sign when a company is only looking for money to buy more computers to keep up with demand.”

He sets out his investment principle that any investment ventured by a fund should be capable of returning the entire value of the fund to shareholders because the majority of investments will fail. He sights a potential return of 10 times the investment as the only return that should be entertained by investors not because he expects big returns from all of the companies he invests in, but because each company must be potentially capable of making up for the failures of all the others.

This approach may leave the impression of a cavalier or even scattergun strategy, the kind of institutional gambling that is so vilified by the modern media but the impression of Thiel from the book is of a calculating pragmatist.

Thiel’s success as a founder turned investor outside of the literary world imbue the book with a significance that it would not otherwise deserve. Whilst Zero to One does not pertain to any standards of art, as the public face of an economically significant cultural phenomonen, it is interesting and even insightful and in the end, like any good shop-talk, it is easily confined to an afternoon.

The Editors

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 2

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Since writing the first post in this series a few weeks ago, I’ve discovered that the Germans have a word for the inconsolable yearning that seems to be at the root of much of what we do as humans: Sehnsucht. Apparently the notion is now commonly used by psychologists to describe our feelings of inadequacy regarding what we view as incomplete in our lives, as well as our perpetual search for happiness and alternative forms of living. C.S. Lewis became fixated with the idea, which he described as:

“… our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside …

Over a number of years this thought led C.S. Lewis towards his espousal of the Christian faith, which he saw as the only satisfactory counterpoint to the inherent restlessness of the human heart. Similarly, Ulysses’ condemnation in the Inferno is heavily linked to his pursuit of knowledge by purely terrestrial means (i.e. physical as opposed to spiritual travel). For Dante, as for C.S. Lewis, the only way to arrive was to embrace God.

However, turning away from religion, it is clear that a large part of what we derive from books and travel comes from the process itself. In other words, we often undertake both not as necessary steps towards a fixed goal or “arrival”, but as activities we enjoy in and of themselves. This is certainly where Robert Louis Stevenson was coming from when he declared that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Indeed, despite his frail health, Stevenson was a man constantly on the move, and his travel writing (notably In the South Seas, 1896) is said to have deeply influenced Joseph Conrad, who also travelled extensively in the south Pacific and used it as the location for much of his own work (see Lord Jim and Victory).

Seaward ho! Hang the treasure! It’s the glory of the sea that has turned my head.”

The idea of travel for its own sake plays a prominent part in Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a novel which dwells on the invariably anticlimactic nature of achieving a specific goal or arriving at a specific place. The treasure itself becomes a corrupting influence, and is depicted as a stale symbol lying in stark opposition to the travel and adventure that precedes its acquisition. Gold requires a sophisticated system of exchange to recognise its value; in other words, it is inherently worthless. And yet, despite the absence of a meaningful objective, the central quest of Treasure Island is portrayed as a welcome antidote to the drab professionalism of nineteenth century Victorian England.

Reading is a similarly exhilarating but anticlimactic process. The realisation towards the end of a good book that there aren’t many pages left can be crushingly disappointing, as though we expected something more to appear miraculously after the final sentences. It is not, howver, a disappointment that stops us picking up more books, from which we must infer that, as with travel and treasure-hunting, reading is a never ending activity the real pleasure of which lies in the doing and not the arriving. As T.S. Eliot said,

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The Editors

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

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