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Today's quote:

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What is literature for?

 

When I have a good book to read, it is like having a good friend. As I read it, I keep checking how many pages are left from fear of being close to the end. And when I finish it, it feels like losing a good friend. So I keep it in my library with all my other good friends which touched and impacted my life in a special way.

I just wished I had been a more widely-read person much earlier as it would've enabled me to gain a greater insight into the people I met and the places I visited.

When I lived in Greece in the early 80s I visited Hydra several times without ever knowing anything about George Johnston who with his wife Charmian Clift lived for some eight years on the island. George Johnston is of course best known for his book "My Brother Jack" and I have read every one of his many other books since.

When I worked in Port Moresby, one of the old accountants in my office was a Mr Chipps (with a double-p), and the whole office would chortle "Goodbye, Mr. Chips", every time he left the office without my ever realising that they were making a literary reference to James Hilton's famous book.

And of course the same James Hilton wrote "Lost Horizon" in which he gave us the word "Shangri-La". Indeed, the Shangri-La hotel chain bought the rights to his book and placed a copy on every bedside table in place of the usual Gideon Bible. I knew nothing of this when I stayed at various Shangri-La Hotels in Malaysia and Singapore and I had barely heard of Hermann Hesse when I stayed in the suite named after him in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

I visited Pago Pago without ever having read Somerset Maugham's short story "Rain" and lived in Rangoon before I had ever heard of Rudyard Kipling's "On the Road to Mandalay". Even Saudi Arabia would've been of greater fascination to me had I had the time to read Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom".

How much richer my travels would've been had I done all that reading earlier but of course as it was, I found just enough time to read the necessary technical literature to allow me to carry out my work. In those hectic days it was an almost unheard-of luxury to find the time to read a novel. Instead, I studied accountancy standards or IATA rule books, improved my laytime calculation skills, compared charter parties and worked through case studies in forensic auditing, as the case may be.

To this day I am still fascinated by books about unaccountable accounting or the world's worst maritime frauds. BUT I have also found time to dip into John Donne's "No Man is an Island" and Boethius's "The Consolation of Philosophy", so things are beginning to balance out.

 

 

Al-Jaahiz, an Arab writer from centuries ago, advised one to repel anxiety through the reading of books: "The book is a companion that does not praise you and does not entice you to evil. It is a friend that does not bore you, and it is a neighbour that causes you no harm. It is an acquaintance that desires not to extract from you favours through flattery, and it does not deceive you with duplicity and lies. When you are poring through the pages of a book, your senses are stimulated and your intellect sharpens... Through reading the biographies of others, you gain an appreciation of common people while learning the ways of kings. It can even be said that you sometimes learn from the pages of a book in a month, that which you do not learn from the tongues of men in a century. All this benefit, yet no loss in wealth and no need to stand at the door of the teacher who is waiting for his fees or to learn from someone who is lower than you in manners. The book obeys you by night as it does by day, both when you are traveling and when you are at home. A book is not impaired by sleep nor does it tire in the late hours of the night. It is the teacher who is there for you whenever you are in need of it, and it is the teacher who, if you refuse to give to it, does not refuse to give to you. If you abandon it, it does not decrease in obedience. And when all turn against you, showing you enmity, it remains by your side. As long as you are remotely attached to a book, it suffices you from having to keep company with those that are idle. It prevents you from sitting on your doorstep and watching those who pass by. It saves you from mixing with those that are frivolous in their character, foul in their speech, and woeful in their ignorance. If the only benefit of a book was that it keeps you from foolish daydreaming and prevents you from frivolity, it would certainly be considered a true friend who has given you a great favour."

I couldn't have said it better myself.