Sunday, March 09, 2008

Wrapped up in books

Despite being a hideously slow reader, I really love to read books – all sorts of stuff, from crime and thrillers, to historical novels and period novels, to sci-fi fantasy, to mystic realism and I've even, on occasion, wandered into chick-lit. I love reading so much, and I wish I could manage to cram more in, but the ol', mouse-on-a-treadmill Donkey brain just doesn't work that fast (perhaps I need a bigger piece of cheese?).

I tried speed reading courses back when I was at school, but was turned-off by the smarmy, well dressed, and slickly groomed Amway-types who sold the concept like some illicit pyramid scheme, and the notion of "chunking" felt too much like some kind of travesty – using your spare, quiet time, not to slow down and relax, but to read with your brain and heart going at a hundred miles an hour. Kinda made me feel dirty ... so I let the "skill" wither and die.

But despite the slow pace, my love for reading, books and stories has never diminished, and as I sat in the sun this morning, having finished a rather plodding, but no less enjoyable tale about European settlers north of Sydney, I started to think about where books had taken me in the last six months, a period during which Donkey has managed to squeeze in quite a bit more than usual.

The great thing about books is that they can take you away from wherever you are, and plant you smack into another place, another time, or even give you an entirely new personality ... oh, and they usually help you to get more sex than you might in your real-life circumstances ... well maybe that's just me; I guess it depends on what you read.

In the last six months, I have travelled from my little, sunny, south-facing room in Lhasa to Communist Romania and Bulgaria, tracking down the hideous father vampire (who curiously had developed an interest in books himself). This journey also took me to the grand old city of Istanbul and its predecessor, Constantinople, and helped me experience the cacophonous bustle of the markets and the smells of the fishing boats and galleys as they offloaded European merchants and slaves beneath the towering and shining dome of the Sancta (and later Hagia) Sophia.

Oddly enough, I returned to Istanbul a few months later, this time experiencing the grand city in its many incarnations as seen through the eyes of its weathered, mid-twentieth century inhabitants as they looked for meaning in their changing political circumstances and the corruption which was eating its way through the halls of power. In this heart-wrenching tale, I suffered with the main character as he discovered the sense of power which comes to an individual who, having lost everything he ever thought he loved, assumes the identity of another.

Fragile mental health seems to have been a feature of my reading in the last six months. It was evident in the culture of murder which had been handed down from generation to generation as the cathedral in Southern England had been erected, destroyed and re-built over and over again. It was also a theme to disturb as I found myself, a mere school boy, stranded on a deserted island with only my peers, and where I rapidly descended to the mentality of a blood-crazed animal, with no intellectual faculty other than that of the pack, and no drive other than to hunt and kill.

More sadness later as my denial pushed my friends and colleagues further away, and I descended into the maelstrom of chronic alcoholism and the imagined love of a fine drop of red.

Genocide seems to have reared its disgusting form also; from the cold-blooded extinction of the Hawkesbury River's indigenous inhabitants by European settlers in the early nineteenth century, to the crazed ebb and flow of the Hindu and Muslim mobs in divided Gujarat. Here I watched in horror as people turned upon their friends and neighbours in an instant, be they men, women or children, and committed the most alarming and sickening atrocities.

The same disregard for human life exists on the outskirts of the megatropoles of South America, where I found myself, displaced from my rural home, with its chronic drought and starvation, in an uncaring, inhospitable slum, and watching, first with confusion and later with horror as my friends and neighbours would disappear every day, without a trace nor a care from the authorities.

But my reading's not all doom and gloom. I enjoyed a couple of boys-own adventures in pre-revolutionary France, with their tortuous plots and rollicking, barely sublimated homosexuality, and I plodded through a ridiculously lengthy tale which hypothesized that it was magic, not tactics and military might, which saved the Brits from Napoleon at Waterloo (but really, Donkey's had about a gutful of these long books. If an author can't tell a story in 500 pages, then they sure as hell can't manage it in 800 - My kingdom for an Editor!).

At the other end of the spectrum, I enjoyed a quick little number which saw me join the upper echelons of turn-of-the-century British snobs; all "I say Old Top, this is awfully rum, wot? Why don't we journey on down to Wensleydale for a spot of pheasant shooting and a couple of snorts before supper, eh?". It just goes to show, as I said before, books can really take you to places you would otherwise never experience, sometimes to the most ridiculous extremes. Like meeting a medieval, Italian Franciscan monk on the windswept southern coast of modern-day Victoria as he saves the eels from dying (yep, that's kinda weird), and behind the closed doors of the grubby world of British horse racing, and the tangled allegiances which see an innocent man swing just because he's good at what he does.

And finally, I made it to one writer's exploration of music, and the importance of sitting down and reflecting on what you hear, and what it means – clearly the basis for this post. Reading, in the last six months, has taken me to all of these places, helped me to experience the lives of all of hundreds of people, from different cultures and with different beliefs and practices ... and this only in six months! How unquantifiably beneficial for broadening one's intellectual and emotional personality must a life-time of reading be? Maybe there was something in all that nagging of teachers and parents back in the '80s, to stop kids from watching so much TV.

But there's always a downside...
And just before I sign-off, I wanted to bring up something I've noticed during this little reflective exercise. It seems pretty common for writers to take an historical event, and with the few facts that are available to them, construct an entire story, complete with fabricated plots, characters and links to other events and circumstances in history. As a reader, I sit there lapping it all up, fitting the characters and events into a logical matrix in my deranged brain and thinking to myself, "Wow, I never knew that happened". As I reader, I spend weeks, sometimes up to a month, buying into the fabrication, taking these new insights and altering what I had previously thought to be the truth, and committing all the now-superfluous info to the trash.

But the crunch comes when I get to the end of the story. As I turn the last page with that empty feeling I always get when the characters I've been with for so long will now be gone, I come to the author's post-script, and a statement which usually reads along the lines of;

While the events of such-and-such did take place in such-and-such a year at such-and-such a place, all other information contained in this story is fictitious, and any accuracies between the characters in this story and those of history are entirely coincidental.
Now don't get me wrong, it's not just books that do this, and in fact, TV and movies may be even more guilty of this crime, but isn't it a bit irresponsible to have someone buy into such stories, with all their vivid, true-to-life events and characters; so much so that they begin to alter what they know to be true, only to tell them at the end that it was all just a farce? And what about those readers/viewers who never knew anything about the events in the first place? What are they likely to think really happened after reading this story, or watching this movie?

As to whether this type of thing should be allowed is a difficult question, as it impacts on the issue of the right to free speech, but in a world where people are reading less, and where one of the most commonly used sources of learning is an on-line, user-contributed reference database, one can't help but feel there should be some importance placed upon ensuring the real facts of history are not lost to sensationalist, Hollywood-style depictions. How to manage this, though; that's got me stumped.


A selection of goodies from the last six months. Pic: www.librarything.com

4 comments:

BV said...

All you can do is instill that kind of thinking into your children. Now go on and make some. Children, that is.

DonkeyBlog said...

Oh, yeah, OK. I'm on it...

sabrina said...

It has recently come to my attention that i am more obsessed with buying books than actually reading them!

I have more than 50 unread books and yet everytime i walk into a bookshop i have to buy a book.

Don't even get me started on booksales!!

DonkeyBlog said...

I've heard this from other people too. I am such a monumental tight-arse, though, that I will not buy unless I am ready to read.

This might sound sensible, but it means I end up slogging though things that I'm not always enjoying, while drooling over something new I've found.

Thanks for your empathy re my situation.