After reading news from around the world, as I try to do before breakfast every day, and before I hunkered down, late on Monday, to resume working on a book-length manuscript, I searched the hollows of my mind (which is pretty empty to begin with) for something to write about that has nothing to do with the dreaded pandemic. There had to be something.
I have always imagined being an essayist, in the truest sense of the word. In other words, like anyone who has ever walked the earth, I have a view on many things, but I remain ignorant of very many more. Like quantum mechanics; how everything in the universe works at a level smaller than an atom. Just writing that sentence hurt my head. But seriously, the essay, you see, is in part research, in part critical writing, and a method of embodying the writer’s experiences before and during the process of writing.
I often describe this as “the act of writing”. And so, many of us who try to eke a living from writing – some of whom hang by the flimsiest of threads (cough) — have spent hours at the keyboard writing about the damn pandemic for longer than I am arsed to bother. There has to be something else. Then it popped up on my Twitter feed (where else?); a discussion, broadly, about what the books on your shelf say about you.
One discussion I followed was about a picture of Michael Gove’s bookshelf, which contained a history book by David Irving, a notorious Holocaust denier. Gove is a minister in the UK Prime Minister’s cabinet. The discussion spread across Twitter as quickly as you could say virus.
So, here are a few questions. Does your bookshelf define you? Do you have to read only those works that confirm your biases? If you have a Quran on your bookshelf, does it make you a (better) Muslim? Does ownership of the Bible make you a (better) Christian? Do writers like David Irving deserve pride of place among your books next to, say, Isaiah Berlin? Or, if you arrange your books alphabetically, does David Irving deserve a place beside John Irving, followed by Carl Jung, and Arthur Koestler?
Just by the way, whenever I do online commentaries for TV, I try to do them without “showing” my books as a way to parade knowledge. Know what I mean? Actually, I take personal pride in making sure that everything I write (outside Twitter) has some factual, or logical basis, or I can produce literature, or a coherent argument on every statement or observation.
Which reminds me of the brief thrill I had in a discussion with a friend and former colleague, to which I will come below. Personally, I don’t think people should be defined by the contents of their bookshelves. Well, not unless they have only 100 books on a shelf, each one of which is a denial of the Holocaust, plus a copy of Mein Kampf. It’s safe to draw some conclusions from that. The same can also be said of people who have only Marxist writers on their shelves.
Bookshelves can, and they cannot, give us an insight into someone. However, without also knowing the person’s work, output or their ideas, beliefs and values, the contents of someone’s bookshelf are probably meaningless as a measure of who they are and what their most dearly held beliefs are. I would venture a guess that every lefty (and many economists who claim they’re non-ideological) has a copy of Thomas Piketty’s Capital on their shelf somewhere, but not everyone has actually read it. It might as well be a doorstop, or a paperweight. The same goes for George Orwell’s 1984, Animal Farm, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Very many people will claim to have read these books, but very few have actually read them.
About a decade ago, The Guardian published results of a survey, “Our Guilty Secrets: The books we only say we’ve read”. The following results were published: “George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four comes top in a poll of the UK’s guilty reading secrets. Asked if they had ever claimed to read a book when they had not, 65% of respondents said yes and 42% said they had falsely claimed to have read Orwell’s classic in order to impress. This is followed by Tolstoy’s War and Peace (31%), James Joyce’s Ulysses (25%) and the Bible (24%).”
My personal view is that I give Holocaust deniers no oxygen. The same goes for apologists for slavery. There are probably a few others. There are some things that have no “middle ground” and for which you do not have to be “fair and balanced,” or “hear both sides”. This is a type of intellectual compromise where you “listen to both sides”, which amounts to the permissibility of, say, killing only three million Jews, as opposed to more than six million, or you take only half of African slaves to work the plantations in the Americas – because we have to “listen to both sides” and “compromise”. (I would like to insert an expletive here).
So, you can have any books on your bookshelf, and some folk will judge you by that. Personally, I think you should read as much as you can, with one big caveat. I read a book — a work, I should say — that stripped about two years off my life. I would discourage people from starting to read, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. If you do, don’t blame me if you can’t get through it or if you are angry (with yourself) for starting to read the damn book in the first place. It’s worse (in terms of actual reading) than Sartre’s Nausea, which, sadly, I have read about four times. It is a fine work, it should be said.
To conclude, then, let me share a conversation I had with a friend over the weekend. She sent me a note.
“Have you read, Darkness at Noon”. So sick and tired of everything being about the virus, I gave her (on WhatsApp) a review (without her permission) of almost everything Koestler had written: from his passage into communism, to his anti-communism (see the two volumes of his biography, Arrow in the Blue and Invisible Writing); to the horrors of Stalinism (Darkness at Noon); his dabbling in parapsychology, and messing with discredited Lamarckian Theory (The Case of the Midwife Toad; The Roots of Coincidence); his fascination with Mysticism (The Lotus and the Robot); The Act of Creation; Arrival and Departure; The Yogi and the Commissar; The Sleepwalkers; the Ghost in the Machine, and The Thirteenth Tribe… It was absolutely thrilling to talk to someone, albeit by WhatsApp, about something that had nothing to do with this damn Pandemic. I was so excited, that I stopped typing and sent voice notes instead…
So what’s the moral in all of this?
As a writer, an essayist and a columnist (and sometimes broadcaster), I don’t give oxygen to Holocaust deniers, or people who say things like “blacks started apartheid” or “Africans sold slaves to Europeans”. There are very many great books out in the world, and there are some terrible books. Read as many of them as you can. As mentioned, above, there are instances when you can judge someone about the content of their bookshelf, but seriously, I read voraciously, publications that range from Haaretz in Israel, to Malaysiakini in Malaysia, The Straits Times in Singapore, The Hindu Times in India, Al Ahram in Egypt, Colombia Reports, the South China Morning Post… I think I am better informed for that. DM
Postscript: Don’t blame me if you start reading In Search of Lost Time, and regret its length notwithstanding — it is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.