Bringing to life better minds

Yesterday, I was asked to explain to school-children what I liked about reading. I found it very difficult to do, without describing particular books. Recently, for example, I came across a book by the British monk Gildas. It caught my eye, on a shelf, when I should have been doing something else. I opened it, and was suddenly in the presence of a man from the sixth century. He was speaking, directly to me, in the exact words that he had chosen more than a millennium ago, about the state of Britain after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Here it is:

I shall not follow the writings and records of my own country, which (if there were any of them) have been consumed by the fires of the enemy, or have accompanied my exiled countrymen into distant lands, but be guided by the relations of foreign writers, which being broken and interrupted in many place are therefore by no means clear.

He wrote as someone living at the very edge of the known world, one of the last literate men on a distant frontier, conscious of his limitations, and blindness, in a world that had slipped its moorings. He spoke in bewilderment, in distress. He seemed to be writing his history, as though putting it into a glass bottle, to be thrown from his sinking ship, unsure if anyone would ever read it. And then – fourteen hundred years later – I could.

Later, I found, on a shelf about Cumbria, an Anglo-Saxon poem about the collapse of a Roman wall (The ruins fell, perished/shattered into mounds of stone, where formerly many a warrior/joyous and bright with gold, with splendour adorned/proud and flushed with wine, in war trappings shone). Next, I discovered a Cumbrian lullaby, written in the seventh century, about hunting in the Lake District. Then, I came across Egil’s saga, in which the tenth century Norse hero, aged seven, kills a ten-year-old friend with an axe, because of a disagreement at a ball game. I was finding voices still entirely fresh, despite the gap of centuries – apparently undiluted by time. They were originally written in four separate languages. And they revealed a period when each valley in the Lake District had once been almost a separate nation: when Britain had contained more ethnic, linguistic and religious divisions than Yugoslavia. And yet, without “reading” these rare texts (Gildas was the first British text, and the last for two hundred years), all such cultures would be almost irretrievable.

I began to understand why reading mattered, in part, because for twenty-one months I was functionally illiterate. Walking, twenty miles or so a day from Turkey to Bangladesh, I rarely carried a book, and when I learned Farsi, Urdu or Nepali, I did not learn the scripts, so I could not read. Neon advertisements in towns, calligraphy on ancient tiles, and police documents were equally mute to me. The majority of villagers with whom I stayed were also illiterate. In Afghanistan being besawad – illiterate – was an insult, used often by city-dwellers against rural people, and it implied stupidity; but in fact I found these illiterate people to be courteous, shrewd, and eloquent. But I also realised that I and they – being illiterate – could not engage in the same way with the languages and voices of the dead. Only reading can fully resurrect the minds of others.

Once you have taken possession of a book, you can establish a relationship with a writer, which would be intolerable to a living individual: you can wake the writer at three in the morning, switch her off in mid-sentence, insist she continues for six hours unbroken, skip, go back, repeat the same paragraph again and again, impertinently second-guessing her vocabulary, and metaphors, scrutinising her structure and tricks. But the writer remains always autonomous. When I try to follow a good writer into her most inaccessible passages, press my mind into hers, burrow into her brain, I find I can never quite keep up.

The writer has from the start the advantage over the reader. Their minds are more perfected, and clarified over five hundred pages, than could ever be possible in a real encounter. If I were to meet a writer I love, I might be frustrated by his conversation – aware that he is not focused, in that moment, on the things that seem most interesting, is perhaps repeating an anecdote, rather than thinking. But reading, I can spend three days, with the most perfected version of his mind, where every sentence, is an exact, considered choice. And often, I sense that the writer is capable of things, beyond anything I could imagine or attempt.  I think I should have said to the school-children that the reason, to read, is to bring to life better minds.

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