Ending Literacy

Bruce ChatwinI devoted my long weekend to reading Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin which is a very nearly perfect book of its sort edited by Nicholas Shakespeare with sardonic comments from Chatwin’s wife Elizabeth.

I am nearly finished the 600 pages and will reread regularly. As I read I wondered how many more of these pleasures the world will hold. On the one hand email and cheap long distance has pretty much ended the letter or even the postcard (a favorite Chatwin wheeze to avoid overdue letters). On the other the sad truth that the market for books in general, much less collected letters of relatively obscure authors, is fading.

People are still reading. Kindle and suchlike are booming. But Under the Sun is a bit obscure to be Kindlized. As are any number of books on my shelves written pre-2000.

As importantly, the sort of odd curiosity, the fitting together of assorted people and places, which makes reading Chatwin’s Letters hugely entertaining, is not something which lends itself to the digital world. While you can certainly Google “Bruce Chatwin’s friends” it does not really replace having read sets of letters and literary biography in and around his period.

And that, as my soon to be closing used bookdealer friend told me, is not something many people are doing these days. He blames the HST, Kindle, high ferry fares and a litany of other causes; but I fear it is more basic than that.

Literacy, in the sense of actually knowing a bit about a period or a school or a bunch of interconnected authors, takes very little education and a good deal of time. It is quite different from studying a particular period’s literature for a university course because it allows you to go much deeper on a single author or to track down an author’s second best friend who happened to be a musician who could write.

When you have been reading in a particular place for a while, you start bumping into people you have already read about. Eventually you – as I did – discover that the model for the rotten witch at the centre of the last six novels in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time was a one time wife of Cyril Connolly. And you find out she wrote two memoirs which are, apparently,well worth reading. So it goes.

I have explained to my boys that a couple of hundred books in my library are fascinating, intrinsically valuable, somewhat rare and almost entirely worthless. Worse, it would be best to keep the collection together.

A long weekend spent in Chatwin’s company is, for me, a wonderfully entertaining few days. It is immersive and several times I wandered over to my shelves to find some character or another. I don’t pretend I accomplished anything. I simply enjoyed the company of a good book.

(You can read Paul Theroux’s Telegraph review here.)

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One thought on “Ending Literacy

  1. Oh, piffle. Were it not for Feedbooks.com and my Kobo, I might never have discovered Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’, and many other pieces of classic literature. I can snatch an untold number of classic books out of the 3G ether around me now whenever I please. Life is good.

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