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

 

Share
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.



terblacker@aol.com

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, Britain’s largest Immigration Removal Centre  

Thanks to Channel 4 we now see just how appallingly Yarl’s Wood detention centre shames Britain

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
 

If I were Prime Minister: I’d ensure ministers took mental health in the armed forces as seriously as they take physical wounds

James Jones
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?