Why books seem shockproof against change.

March 11th, 2009

Where to begin when this is the end?

There were so many more columns to write – starting with the linguistic mis-fires we all love. My neighbour, (the one who speaks of death as ‘giving up the goat’), warned me on New Years Day that things this year would be even more ‘dubbed down.’ I like that, with its notion of intelligent life translated into baffling cinema-speak – those movies we wander into late at night in a foreign city, understanding nothing except for the sex and violence.

The Times, of course, is not dubbing down, but it is changing, and the columns of Times Books will be no more. Indeed Times Books as we know it will be no more, (comments please), but books themselves, thankfully, seem shockproof against change. Neither economics nor e-readers will oust the beloved book.
We don’t stop reading because we are poor, any more than book lovers will give up books for their electronic look-a-likes.

I was given an e-reader complete with 100 Classics for Christmas; it was a corporate present that went straight in the corporate recycling. Call me old-fashioned, who cares? Bicycles and books don’t need re-inventing; both are wheels, one for the body and one for the soul, mandalas of possibility, which marks me out as dangerously mystic as well as old-fashioned.
It may explain why so many of my Times letters are from Vicars…

But I believe in change, and have tried to live by that marvellous passage from Walter Pater in his Conclusion to the Renaissance, where, amongst many things he says that ‘failure is to form habits.’

The mind grows through exposure to truth, and nothings hinders our experience of truth more than rigidity of habit; habit of thought, habit of action, and yes, reading habits too.
It is why I read as widely as I can, and why each month I read a book that it is some way uncongenial to me. This can be fiction or non fiction, and I don’t do it to confirm my own opinions, but to test them, and sometimes to humiliate them.

As a writer, change is necessary, otherwise writing because a kind of copying out of what is there already. That may make money but it won’t make new imaginative space. But then, neither will ceaseless technological innovation, which is simply distracting. I don’t see that Shakespeare or the Brontes or Eliot would have written better if they had had laptops. I love my Mac but I can work without it.

Change for the sake of change is not interesting. The way we live now, change is all on the outside – a new one of everything as soon as possible, but to change a person, to change a way of life, or a cast of mind, cannot be done without reversing the polarity of energy from the outside to the inside.

This reculer pour mieux sauter is absolutely at odds with our present set of values. I was hoping that the economic crisis might prompt a shift towards re-thinking those values, but we are back to the Big Spend. The cultural programme at Davos, which was to include a few writers like myself this year, has been cancelled.

Readers of this column will know that I believe in art and literature as a counterweight to prevailing values, and that for me, fiction and poetry are not leisure activities but active energies at the centre of life.

As this is my final column, perhaps I can speak very personally and say that for me, the last eighteen months have been a series of seismic shocks to the heart, shocks of loss and death, including my father, just now, just buried, given up the goat. I have cycled miles to quiet my body on its outer wheel, stopping exhausted to read Ted Hughes or George Herbert, slowing the inner wheel of my mind.

And I have tested the value of books, pictures, music, theatre, and found there courage to accept without evasion, whatever suffering must be endured, and to make out of its burning, stuff that is durable; of value to others as well as to the self.
Writing this column has been a way of thinking through much that is important about books, about creativity, about what it means to read seriously and think poetically, when everyday language is both non-stop and trivial. And it has been a meeting place, or so it seems to me; as though on Saturdays we sat on a bench with our books, and talked.

I will miss this. Part broken-part whole, you begin again.