Terence Blacker: Pity those who are 'too busy' to read


Related Topics

Those engaged in the great and important campaign to prevent libraries in the UK being closed down could learn a lot from the four-year tussle which has been taking place in Canada between a big-time novelist and a leading politician.

Some might say that when the Booker Prize winner Yann Martel took on the Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, the outcome was predictable – the writer would write, the politician would ignore him – but, for champions of the library system, there are reminders in what happened both of what they are up against and of why their campaign matters so much.

The battle was about reading. Back in 2007, Martel was part of a delegation of high-profile writers, artists and musicians attending his country's House of Commons to hear a debate about arts funding. He was enraged by the bored indifference of the politicians. Harper ignored the proceedings altogether, shuffling through his papers.

Martel has tried to educate his Prime Minister. Once a fortnight since then, he has sent him a book, with an eloquent covering letter explaining why it is worth reading. The 100 freebies were a varied bunch, from Kafka to Carol Shields, from A Modest Proposal to Birthday Letters.

"I know you're busy, Mr Harper. We're all busy," Martel wrote with the first book, Tolstoy's The Death Of Ivan Ilyich. "But every person has a place next to where they sleep... In that space, at night, a book can glow." Sending a non-fiction work by Larry McMurtry, he explained that books are "a sustained whisper", which "nourish and sustain the soul".

In reply to those 100 books and explanatory letters, Martel received five brief thank-you-and-now-sod-off letters from the PM's Executive Correspondence Officer. Finally admitting defeat this month, the novelist allowed a note of frustration to enter his final letter. "Work, work, work, but what mark do we leave, what point do we make? People who are too beholden to work become like erasers: as things move forward, they leave in their wake no trace of themselves."

The problem, as Martel and library campaigners have discovered, is that increasingly it is the erasers – work-junkies hooked on their own busyness – who are in charge. For Harper, the books sent to him might well have represented art, heart and all that, but frankly he was a busy man.

Senior politicians, self-important people caught up in the here and now, have often taken a bone-headed, even hostile, attitude towards culture. It is not just that the bigger questions about being human seem irrelevant to their daily concerns, but they are an irritating diversion. According to this dead-eyed, utilitarian view of the world, people like Martel are there to provide entertainment after the more important office-based work of the day has been done. Culture should know its place.

Today, when it is not only politicians who work, work, work, when almost everyone is skimming and skipping from one screen to another, books are under greater pressure than ever. It requires more effort to read, to switch the world off and concentrate, but the rewards are also commensurately greater. Never before have we needed so badly the moments of stillness and contemplation, the provision of thought and a wider context, which good art provides.

Books represent a vision of freedom – from circumstance, from thwarted ambition, from background, from prejudice, from unimaginative leaders. That is why politicians distrust them, why totalitarian regimes tend to lock up writers, academics and librarians.

It also why closing down libraries, by a cynical central government and stupid local councils, would be a grievous assault on citizens, particularly children. The glow of a good book offers an escape from today's realities to tomorrow's possibilities, through ideas, feeling, stories and hope.


React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny

Thatcher as a role model for young women? It may not be as desperate as you would think

Rosie Millard
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions