Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A reading for my cubmaster

When I was an eight year cub old I went on an expedition to the edge of the Hunua Ranges. With my fellow cubs I slept in an old barracks house, and explored the dank winter bush with my torch. One night a cubmaster patrolling the barracks caught me reading one of my Biggles books - actually, it was one of my father's Biggles' books - and gave me a solemn lecture about the dangers of text. Reading under the blankets would ruin my eyes, he explained, and I needed the batteries in my torch for the bush and for caves. And why was I thinking about books at all? Hadn't I come to the ranges to find adventure outdoors? I should be sleeping, and dreaming about tomorrow's mudlark.

I wish I had been able to bring a copy of John Carey's The Unexpected Professor on that long-ago cub camp. Carey is a semi-retired scholar of English literature, and his autobiography describes his progress from a lower middle class childhood through a grammar school to Oxford, where he was often treated as a second-class scholar, and his subsequent attempts to subvert the class prejudices of England's hoariest universities.

After reading Carey's story, I understand some of the rage that fills his most controversial book, The Intellectuals and the Masses, which has the subtitle Pride and Prejudice Amongst the Literary Intelligentsia and argues that great innovators of early twentieth century British literature like TS Eliot and HG Wells were motivated by distrust or hatred of a newly educated working class.

Carey's autobiography ends with a wonderful chapter in defence of reading. I would have liked to have shown that vigilant and bibliophobic cubmaster Carey's words.

So, in the end, why read?

There are as many answers to that question as readers. My answer is that reading opens your mind to alternative ways of thinking and feeling. Read Richard Dawkins and you think and feel one way about religion. Read George Herbert and you think and feel another. Book-burners try to destroy ideas that differ from their own. Reading does the opposite. It encourages doubt.

Reading punctures pomp...Remember Melville in Moby Dick, 'O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease'.

Reading is contemptuous of luxury. Remember George Eliot writing about Rosamon Vincy in Middlemarch: 'in poor Rosamond's mind there was not room enough for luxuries to look small in'. 

Reading makes you see that ordinary things are not ordinary. Remember Keats: 'The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.'

...Reading is vast, like the sea, but you can dip into it anywhere and be refreshed. Reading takes you into other minds and makes them part of your own. Reading releases you from yourself. Reading is freedom. Now read on.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

Yes. There need be no apology to read. I read a lot as you know. I am addicted to books (physical). I keep buying them and usually have about 10 to 20 out of my local library at one time on all kinds of subjects. Just picked up a book about the 30 years war by Veronica Wedgewood (want to know more about that part of history), have some poetry books, some art, and I also read Biggles a lot as a boy before reading Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo etc I also read books in the Scientific Book Club and Gerald Durrell's books about animals which most of my family read. (His brother Lawrence is mentioned but he was only 'ambitious' to be a writer at the time). I also bought some books by Saramago and started the fascinating 'The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis' (who, I'd forgotten, but he is or was one of the alter egos of one of the "poets" that Pessoa invented, and he wrote differently to the other two....So Saramago is using this conjunction. It is about 1935 and the Spanish Civil War is about to happen. It is intriguing. It is going to be fun. There is depth and beauty. Saramago (Portuguese) won the Nobel Prize.

9:05 pm  
Anonymous Tony M said...

A lovely (and important) piece. Thank you. A lovely image, too. But who does it depict?

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Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Hi Tony, the image shows John Carey with his two sons. There are some nice portraits of his family in the autobiography.

Hi Richard, I like the way Carey emphasises that reading and life aren't necessarily opposed. Anne Salmond made the same point when she said 'books are another way of exploring the world'.
The image of the inveterate reader as some sort of recluse is quite mistaken: some famous 'men of action' have been bibliovores!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, god, tyring to make Biggles sound exotic! Wishing you had some adult books on camp. How pathetic. Pretending to be the ideal father, look at the picture, its not sweetness and light. He is ignoring his sons. You want to be like that, but you are like that - the absent father. Wake up before its too late and they are gone. Can't say you weren't warned.

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