Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Importance of Books: Why We Need to Tell Ourselves Stories

What role does the book play in the continued health of civilization? The question keeps coming up as I read and re-read books for book discussion groups.

One of the striking things bout Roberto Bolaño’s astounding By Night in Chile is the way the narrator escapes from the evil abroad during the Pinochet regime in Chile by re-reading philosophers.

In Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader—last month’s book at the Atwater Library—the illiterate woman whom the narrator loves is captivated by books, and may be said to find her personal salvation in learning how to read and learning to repent for what she’d done as a Nazi guard.

Tonight and tomorrow I’m talking about Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog in which the concierge Renée soars above her surroundings by reading the classics of Western literature—as well as watching a lot of good films (from Blade Runner to Ozu’s artistic wonders) and listening to good music.

But it is last night’s discussion of Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones which gives me the most food for thought. In it, the one white man left on the island of Bougainville during a time of intense suffering and civil war reads Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations to children who have no other book. The story captivates them, and when the book is burnt along wit the village, they attempt to retrieve bits of it, as both an exercise in survival and a way of thinking about other things than the destruction around them. Yet at the end of the book we learn that the version Mr. Watts read was not the real one, but a simplified, maybe even crudely changed one.

At a time when books as objects made from printed paper are becoming increasingly problematic, this concern about stories and books is very interesting. Perhaps all these books—which obviously have touched a deep chord in people all over the world, as reflected in their enormous sales---shine a light on the human need for a narrative to explain life.

If we don’t have one, we’ll invent one.

For an interesting look at the background to Mister Pip, here is part of a documentary made in the 1990s about the troubles on Bougainville. It's up to you to decide which tells the truth better.

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