The Joys of Reading
Wedd, George, Contemporary Review
BACON said 'Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man'. (I recall a favourite undergraduate howler: "'Eating maketh a full man" (Bacon)'.) We are told that the age of the printed word between hard, or even paper, covers is passing. It has had a long run. Half a millennium of moveable type: well, we cannot justly complain if it is replaced by something intangible, ethereal and electronic; just as long as 'the Word' remains. 'In the beginning was the Word', as St John thought-provokingly says, and so it will remain until some clever man in the West of America discovers a way to communicate thoughts direct from your skull to mine without using the tiresome formula of subject-verb-object. Almost all of us can read. England was largely literate in the sixteenth century, and became nearly completely so when a Liberal Minister followed up manhood suffrage by saying 'We must educate our masters'. It is slightly shocking to be approached in the post office by a nervous man asking help to fill in a form, 'because, you see, I cannot read'. It is a sign of illness.
Although practically all of us can read, not all of us do. There are various degrees of indifference and aversion. There was an old lady who was eventually prescribed glasses but would not wear them, saying 'It's all bloody seeing!' (She died when knocked down by a car.) An aunt of mine would meet me returning in triumph from W.H. Smith's, having spent my infant pocket-money on a Penguin (six old pence -- eheu, fugaces) , with the words 'But you've got a book already!' I sometimes share a newspaper with a fellow-drinker in the village pub: he wants nothing but the sports pages at the back, while I want everything but them. His fingers trace the headlines and the picture captions; then he gives up and his lips cease to move. He is in a prison, but does not realise it. (So, no doubt, am I, but in a larger, open, one.)
What do we read, and why? Everyone has his or her own story. I declare my interest. I am in my seventies. I went to the village school on my fourth birthday, and thanks to the burning-glass of my mother's concentration on me I could already read. So I have had a long acquaintance with print. I had poorish eyesight, not diagnosed for a very long time, which made me a duffer at all games involving balls moving rapidly -- especially cricket, which involved small, hard balls aimed directly at me, and to which I have a long aversion. Then, of course, there was the Second World War and its aftermath, when there was little else to do. Even getting around to see the world was difficult. Buses were few and usually ran to factories, and at the railway station there were posters asking 'Is your journey really necessary?' I had a bicycle, but in our hilly district ten miles was about the perimeter for that. Thank Heaven, there was a library -- a poor one even by the standards of the time, but there were books, rooms full of them, and I worked systematically along the shelves. (Actually, the first library I joined had no visible books; there was a card-index on the wall. You took a card and presented it through a hatch to an unpleasant man who would interrogate you and, if satisfied, get the book -- slowly -- from some back room. That was in D.H. Lawrence's home town, and I have wondered sometimes if he used it as a boy and, if so, what the 'librarian' and he made of each other.)
I therefore read -- and read -- and read. I knew the names of the important, classic, authors, and the library was old-fashioned enough to have them. This was not, in fact, as much of a good thing as it sounds. I did not understand half of what I read; not just romantic love, but much to do with adult affairs of all kinds was beyond a juvenile appreciation. And, having read them too young with incomprehension, I find they are spoiled for me. It sounds very grand to have read Bleak House or The Brothers Karamazov at the age of twelve, but it makes them heavy going now. …