Letters: Perspectives on reading

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Don't sneer, but I've better things to do

As if I don't have enough to do, Philip Hensher (Opinion, 23 March) now wants me to read at least 20 books a year! Please – others can read as many books as they like, but don't prescribe this overrated hobby for all of us.

I can't share some celebrities' claims that they've never read a book; I have read some that have been enriching. But there are more I have attempted before giving up with boredom after a couple of chapters. Snobbery among avid readers can be dreadful, but please don't sneer because I'm not fond of wading through other people's ramblings.

Reading does not always make people more intelligent or even more knowledgeable; one has only to look at internet chat about what books people are reading for that to be clear. Mr Hensher thinks reading would divert many from a path of criminality, but reading is also a reference tool for crime.

Adrian Durrant, Eastbourne, East Sussex

Look beyond the dusty 'classics'

I very much enjoyed reading your list of 50 recommended books for children (23 March). It was interesting to see an assortment of texts from several eras, many exploring important subjects that are still topical ("Refugee Boy", for example).

Similar lists intended for adults are almost always made up of pre-1970s tomes considered "classics" by the establishment. I can't help but feel that readers of such lists lose out on those volumes not yet covered in the dust of age.

Let's see an equally broad-minded, relevant, topical list for adults.

Jessica Wilde, London N6

Tyrants who act fast leave the world standing

I deeply resent the waste of money currently expended on the Libyan military intervention.

There is nothing more expensive than the depressingly predictable "too little, too late" syndrome that afflicts multi-national interventions in what are initially small-scale uprisings. The world never seems any better prepared than the last time to give pause for thought to ruthless tyrants preparing to butcher their own citizens.

In fact, quite the opposite. Such tyrants know that if they act quickly enough they can achieve their objectives while the international community wrangle among themselves, and that their eventual actions will be largely predicated on how to preserve their own safety rather than protecting the stated objects of their concern. What use, for example, are cruise missiles to a family fired on in their own street by the gangs of hired thugs who have now seized the window of opportunity to infiltrate the centre of Misrata?

The protests in Libya were never intended to be a military uprising, coming from an aspiring middle-class youth movement seeking political freedoms. How can they possibly be expected to stand up to the army of a ruthless dictator without better help than hundreds of vastly expensive missiles raining from the sky to promote a no-fly zone that has long since become redundant?

The moment for a temporary partition of the country, when the protesters held much more territory, has sadly passed. The West must now pay the price for that failure. It's time for boots on the ground, or the investment in military hardware will have been a monstrous and indefensible waste, not only of money, but of brave Libyan lives, and a shameful betrayal of Western values.

Sierra Hutton-Wilson, Evercreech, Somerset

I am delighted that the UN has reached a consensus that it should act to prevent humanitarian abuses even when they are exclusively within the boundaries of a member state. It is progress that the UK government has accepted the importance of the UN in such matters.

I hope that the Cabinet papers concerning the decision to participate in the intervention in Libya include the measures that need to be taken to avoid "collateral damage", an analysis of the tribal nature of Libyan politics, the distribution of oil resources in the country, the need to avoid supporting a partition that punishes a large part of the population for being part of the wrong tribe or living in the wrong part of the country, the inherent difficulty with democratic elections where electors vote on tribal or religious grounds rather than policy and an understanding of the importance in Tunisia and Egypt of the military detaching themselves from a despotic leader.

I fear that they may just show a moralistic but gung-ho view that the UK should support the "rebels" to topple Gaddafi.

Jon Hawksley, London EC1

Our dear leader, David Cameron, tells us Muammar Gaddafi is a bad guy and that is sufficient justification for the UK bombing his buildings, airfields, tanks, towns etc.

This simplistic rationale might be fair enough if the bad guy is truly that. However in the past bad guys have made the leap from prison cells to political leaders, to be re-designated as good guys; and good guys were downgraded from trusty allies to pariahs – Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Hosni Mubarak etc.

To make things even more confusing, sometimes – as in the case of Gaddafi – bad guys become good guys only to become bad guys again!

Perhaps the Government should copy the George W Bush administration and produce a pack of playing cards similar to their one that showed Iraq's most wanted "Dead or Alive". Our government could produce a similar pack showing pictures of the most evil leaders of countries, which could be revised on a monthly basis as good guys become bad or bad guys become good.

That way we would know where we stand, and sleep soundly in bed at night comforted by the fact that bloodshed from missiles slamming into cities in North Africa or the Middle East is in a good cause.

Unless of course our politicians are engaged in doublespeak.

Tom Minogue, Dunfermline, Fife

Ray Chandler (letter, 21 March) raises a crucial point which so far has had little publicity. The costs of this new overseas military adventure must run into millions, whatever the exact figure may be, and the costs at this stage are open-ended. How can the country possibly afford it?

According to the Tory party, the deficit inherited from the Labour government's mismanagement is such that drastic domestic cost-cutting is immediately necessary, which will have a major impact on jobs and services and will affect us all in our quality of life.

So what is the real picture? We are still a rich country that can afford military adventures. The cost-cutting may therefore be seen primarily as a continuance of the Thatcherite agenda: privatise the forests; privatise the libraries; privatise (in effect) the NHS, and so on. Then, when the deficit is right down and millions have suffered en route, I hazard a guess we will be hearing about tax cuts.

I am sorry, but the Tory leopard has not changed its spots.

David Ashton, Shipbourne, Kent

If the UN-sanctioned action against Colonel Gaddafi is "not about regime change" – then why have we become involved? The anti-Gaddafi rebels we are supporting and protecting are most definitely fighting for regime change.

Why is everyone so terrified of admitting that the real purpose of this action is to get rid of a cruel tyrant who has terrorised his own people (and sponsored global terrorism) for more than 40 years? It is high time the international community did away with the ridiculous, although widely accepted, convention that there is something inherently wrong in bringing about regime change in countries such as Libya, and Zimbabwe, whose citizens are oppressed by aguably insane despots.

Of course this latest UN-sanctioned action is about regime change – politicians at the UN and in this country, the rest of Europe and the Arab world are just too mealy-mouthed to admit it.

Robert Readman, Bournemouth

Mark Holt is rightly censorious about two-faced Britain after Iraq (letter, 21 March), but moral right and wrong are not determined by our own past behaviour. How does our deservedly guilty conscience about Iraq give us a moral duty to leave Gaddafi to slaughter all the Libyan rebels he can catch?

The whole situation in Libya, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and the Balkans is a nightmare for anyone who, like me, is a pacifist, but polemics and false analogies do no more than get everyone into a deeper and deeper moral morass. I'm glad to feel as Mark Holt does. But it is important to think clearly too.

Kenneth J Moss, Norwich

What is behind Hillary Clinton's insistence that Gaddafi should withdraw his forces from Benghazi, Agdabya and Misrata - while omitting to mention the western Libyan towns of Nalut, Rijban and Zintan, all of which have come under attack? Surely UN Resolution 1973 wasn't intended to be applied selectively, unless it was the wish of some that Libya should become split.

Hamdi Shelhi, Oxford

Keith Nolan (letter, 23 March) asks whether anyone has yet used the term "collateral damage" in relation to Libya. My heart sank when I heard Liam Fox do just that in a BBC television interview on Sunday.

Susan Gibbons, Brighton

Student loans don't add up

I would be grateful if someone could help the allegedly intelligent David Willetts with his mathematics.

We are now told that with interest many graduates will be repaying around £80,000 on their student loan. However, this will be out of income that will have income tax and National Insurance deducted. This means that you can add around 50 per cent to that figure, so many graduates will need to earn in the region of £120,000 to pay off their loan.

In addition, a graduate will have lost three years' income as they study. If we allow for even a modest £10,000 a year to account for this brings the total cost of a degree to £150,000.

It is expected that the average graduate will earn an extra £100,000 in their lifetime. Yet Mr Willetts maintains that this is a good deal. Clearly his degree was not in mathematics or business studies. It worries me that a man who can believe this sits in the Cabinet.

The Rev Dr Mike Bossingham, Market Deeping, Lincolnshire

Cynical move to raise speed limit

Transport ministers are flying the kite of flexible speed limits. This exercise in cynical political populism must be strenuously resisted. The 70mph limit in this country was a hard-won victory for common sense on behalf of countless potential victims of high-speed accidents.

Where would discretionary, local, night-time 80mph limits lead us? The ministers know perfectly well – to the eventual abandonment of the 70mph limit. Effectively, travelling at speeds of around 90mph would become the norm. For what purpose? To curry favour with the Clarkson fraternity? To save time? For economic reasons?

The optimum practical speed on motorways in terms of traffic-flow, fuel economy and safety is in the range 50mph-65mph. Any moves to make high-speed motoring generally more socially acceptable are extremely irresponsible.

David Slinger, Gloucester

Every time I access btinternet.com to open my emails I am confronted by a picture of two young women driving an open-topped car with the caption "Faster is funner". Apart from pushing the dangerous notion that driving fast is fun, something else about the picture struck me as wrong, but it wasn't until this morning that I realised what it was.

The two young women are driving round a blind corner on the wrong side of the road, despite the double white line. They are likely to die within seconds, taking others with them. Is BT seriously advocating this kind of behaviour as fun? If so they are not fit to manage a whelk stall, let alone a vital communications network.

I expect BT will apologise for inadvertently reversing the image. They are still not competent to run a whelk stall.

Peter Milner, Welshpool, Powys

Squabbles over health reforms

Dr Stephen Black (letter, 22 March) questions the objectivity of members of the British Medical Association who oppose reforms to the NHS. He accuses them of "powerful lobbying" with detrimental outcomes for patient care.

There may be veracity in his claims; few organisations lobby with a complete lack of self-interest. However, Dr Black, as an employee of PA Consulting, is unlikely to be considered neutral in this argument either.

PA Consulting work extensively in healthcare, "re-designing and delivering new services, working with governments on delivering effective new policies and with providers and commissioners to improve front-line delivery of services" (taken from paconsulting.com). Presumably, they intend to profit from the planned reforms.

Therefore, to paraphrase Dr Black, we should be careful to separate the necessary questioning of the reforms from the self-interested lobbying of private-sector health providers.

Barry Richards, Cardiff

Crackpots and democrats

If I were constantly to write letters correcting Robert Fisk's flights of fantasy, I wouldn't have time to complete a day's work. However, for Fisk to compare the Israeli Foreign Minister with Muammar Gaddafi or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ("Now there's a vacancy for the West's favourite crackpot tyrant", 19 March), belittles the oppression suffered by Iranian and Libyan citizens over the past decades.

While in power, Ahmadinejad and Gaddafi have consistently repressed their own people (particularly minorities), slaughtering them on the streets, and preferring the bullet to the ballot whenever their citizens have sought a vote. By contrast, whatever one thinks of his reported opinions, Avigdor Lieberman serves as Foreign Minister in the only democracy in the region, and leads a party representative of many immigrants and other minorities in Israel.

Amir Ofek, Counsellor for Media Affairs, Embassy of Israel, London W8

Children in custody

We welcome the call by the Children's Commissioner for the Ministry of Justice to abide by international standards on the use of restraint on children in custody ("Call for ban on painful restraint of children", 21 March).

As our "Punishing Disadvantage" research reveals, children in custody have frequently suffered abuse at home or witnessed domestic violence. The last thing these children need is to suffer the trauma of being physically restrained in custody.

The children interviewed by User Voice and quoted in the Commissioner's report feel that staff could often calm situations through talking rather than physical force. Staff who look after children in custody need better training to resolve conflict peacefully.

Penelope Gibbs, Prison Reform Trust, London EC1

What is the point of zoos?

Maybe the death of Knut the polar bear is not in vain ("Zoo accused of contributing to Knut's death", 22 March). If it reignites the debate as to whether zoos – an archaic concept desperately searching for a reason to exist – are rejected by the general public in favour of efforts to conserve and protect wild animals living in their natural habitat as part of evolving ecosystems.

One thing is for sure: If we do not protect and conserve the world's wild places then ironically zoos will have a role to play – to remind us not "what we have lost" but what we have actively destroyed forever.

Will Travers, CEO, Born Free Foundation, Horsham, West Sussex


My admiration for Johann Hari has increased after reading of his years as a teenage drop-out, when he resorted to reading all of Roy Jenkins's political biographies (22 March). How do you come back from that level of delinquency?

Charles Hopkins, Norwich

TV fashion

Has anyone else noticed that BBC correspondents all seem to be wearing Berghaus clothing? Is this the first product placement on the BBC?

Paul Edwards, London EC1

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