Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Aren’t Books Brilliant!

In John Wilmot on May 25, 2011 at 9:12 am

Books stir the imagination, broaden our horizons and are essential to our understanding, argues JOHN WILMOT

Like many other children I was brought up in a home surrounded by books. We devoured them, to the point of being accused of “always having our noses stuck in a book”. They stirred our imagination, and led us by the nose into worlds beyond our small rural childhood existence.

Later, they became essential to learning about who we were, and what we were capable of being. When I left home to seek work in the big city I found myself in lodgings with a left-leaning landlady. She broadened my horizons by introducing me to such Socialist classics as The Iron Heel by Jack London, and the Italian anti-fascist novel Fontamara, by Ignazio Silone (first published in 1934). And the world of books has stuck with me ever since, passed on to my children who have the same passion for the written word.

Of course not everyone shares that view. My brother married, and his wife couldn’t abide books. She thought they were just “dust traps” and used any excuse to throw them out. Gradually the bookshelves emptied and towards the end, my brother also ceased reading, preferring to bury himself in a world of electronic technology.

Which was a pity, I always thought. But books still have a potency that is tacitly recognised in many societies. Why, for example, were books so often censored or even banned? Why did the Nazis engage in public orgies of book burning,¬† of those volumes that criticised their regime, or didn’t fit their racial ideology of the superiority of the Aryan people?

Here in Britain we tended to have a more ambivalent attitude. Our Victorian forebears set up public libraries to help to encourage the spread of literacy. But what the working classes were encouraged to bury their noses in was carefully screened. It might have been important that they could read and write, but they still had to know their place.

It was an attitude that lingered well into the 20th Century. Indeed, when Penguin books produced its notorious unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the publishers were taken to court. During the trial, the prosecuting counsel asked the question, “would you allow your wife or her maid to read this?” Such outmoded attitudes, it seems, were still strong within the judiciary. Penguin, of course, won the case and the veil of censorship was twitched slightly by the verdict.

Despite the growing popularity of electronic alternatives (the computer, TV, and hand-held digital gadgetry), books remain as important as ever. And that’s why the recent BBC promotion of the world of books and reading was so welcome (World Book Night, broadcast on BBC2). Apart from the TV coverage, a million books were given away, with the recipients encouraged to pass their copies on when they’d finished reading them.

It was, perhaps, ironical that the initiative coincided with the local authority attack on public libraries. Faced with the need to make swingeing cuts in their budgets, they saw the libraries as a soft option. Mass closures were announced. Indeed in Somerset this was coupled with the slashing of the County’s entire arts budget.

Many would be forgiven for thinking that the philistines had taken over. But the councils involved in the cuts probably didn’t expect the backlash that emerged from outraged library users. Some cuts were hastily modified, but in essence the attack on our libraries has carried on, in local authorities across the country. And with it the ability of many families to encourage the habit of book reading in the next generation has suffered.

I don’t want to impugn the motives of those county councillors who backed the mass library closures in Gloucestershire or elsewhere. The official line is that libraries are not considered to be “front line services” Neither, it seems, are many youth services or those that offer free legal advice like the CAB that suffered from the cuts – but I’ll let that pass for now.

Books, and book reading, as far as I’m concerned remain vital in any society that likes to call itself “civilised”. Reading books can be both a very private and also public experience. They can be something we can retreat into, or become a shared experience. That’s one reason why, to me at least, they’re so important.


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