People who are clever love books. ‘A room without books is like a body without a soul’, wrote Cicero. Not a room without a bottle of wine, or friends. Books. ‘When I have a house of my own’, wrote Jane Austen, ‘I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.’ Or ‘The only thing that you absolutely have to know’, said Einstein, who knew how to have fun, ‘is the location of the library.’ Not the location of the bar; or the door to a room with a super-king bed with fluffy pillows and crisp fresh sheets; or how to get to a hill-side in Tuscany as the sun is setting over the hills in the warm glow of summer, with loved ones talking or some music wafting into the still of the early evening. The library.
I get it. Read books. Don’t waste time staring into thin air or fiddling around on Twitter. And definitely make children read more, which will be far better for them than playing games online – although who even knows if that is true. But everyone knows that reading leads to enlightenment and happiness. It’s obvious.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends write books. Heck, even I write books. I love reading about what other people think. That’s why I admire Socrates, because at least he was honest. Spend time reading books by other people, he said. They’ll have sweated blood and tears to think about stuff before writing it down. Reading what they’ve written means you will get the benefits for free without any of the hard work. So: who’s the clever one now, he mused? (I am paraphrasing, somewhat).
I have a love/hate relationship with books. Books destroyed part of my enjoyment of life. As a young doctoral student, I more or less lived in the Bodleian library in Oxford. But I read books that not many other people had read (Too dull! Too long! In odd languages!) and some of them had dust mites in the pages that attacked my immune system and generated a response that led to me losing my sense of smell twenty years ago and two operations under general anaesthetic to get rid of nasal polyps which are still a nuisance to this day. So who knows if the wine I’ve been asked to taste is really any good? Who can tell if I have stood in something I shouldn’t have stood in? Who knows if someone left the gas on and that maybe it’s not such a good idea to light a candle? Not me, anyway. Thanks books!
But I also hated going to the library because even though going there made me feel clever (because clever people go to libraries!), I was less keen on the idea that clever people have to be quiet and love silence. None of the other things I like doing need to be done in silence – like watching a football match, having a slap-up dinner with friends or playing a game with them. So why should a library, like art galleries or chess, be silent?
We all know the answer, of course: because knowledge is exclusive. Books and information and knowledge and libraries are meant to stop people learning – not encourage them. You need a pass to get into a library that almost always involves proving why you need one, and then involves having to show you deserve one when you visit. Going to the library usually means going to find books that no one else reads, or that you can’t find in bookshops, or are too expensive to buy. So I could talk about the great libraries of the world, and the many happy times I have spent in them. But not this time.
This time I want to remind why you need to be quiet in a library, rather than why it’s glorious to visit and to remind you why there are often signs telling you to be silent: it’s because you need to concentrate to enjoy learning; it’s because you can’t possibly have fun reading if there are any distractions; it’s because books need to be treated with veneration; it’s because knowledge is treated as though it is sacred, rather than something to be shared. At least in a church or a place of worship you are silent because you are in the presence of God, alongside people trying to communicate with the divine. But unless I am very mistaken, that is not what is going on in a library.
So perhaps it is not a complete surprise that knowledge has been protected and guarded over centuries and millennia – or at least a certain kind of knowledge. Books, literature and literacy were power. Information and knowledge were used as instruments of control – by holy men, but also by tax inspectors, by landlords, by those who were powerful seeking to remain so. Learn your place, said St Augustine, rather than expand your mind. Holy texts were not just written in languages that few could understand, but produced using scripts that few could read. Information and knowledge was only meant for really clever people, in other words.
‘Show me a family of readers, and I will show you the people who move the world’. That is the sort of inspirational quote that people love. Except it is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the great destroyers of culture, lives and happiness in history. If he had read more, and fought less, Europe may have been rather different – perhaps in good ways, perhaps bad. But no one talks about what Napoleon read as he retreated from Moscow, or what books influenced him to tear the glories of European art away from their homes and bring them to Paris as spoils of war.
So here’s what I think. I am less interested in books, in reading and in libraries than in exchange. What I have learned over many, many years immersed in the world of scholarship is that the reason books are wonderful is that they force authors to order their thoughts. That helps create logic, order and reason. Those magical elements create patterns that can lead readers into new worlds. But there are other ways that glorious journey can be prompted too. A perfect meal; a beautiful song; a film that moves to tears; an artwork that stirs the soul; a gift from a friend or a stranger that brings memories of the past. And I would say ‘a smell that…’ but I can’t; thanks to books.
Books are like keys in a lock that can turn to open doors into new places. But let’s not make it sound too special. Plenty of books do not excite, evoke or entertain; plenty reinforce bad ideas, rather than make us stop and wonder if our assumptions need to be revisited; plenty do not stand the test of time – and bear dark and painful views about people of different race or gender, of different sexuality or faith. We should remember that not all books are equal. Some contain ideas and opinions that are vile; some include information and facts that are wild and speculative and sometimes plain wrong. Some of the Byzantine (medieval Greek) material I’ve worked on in the past has been sparkling; but a lot is just not very good.
I can tell you, though, what I love about books: sharing what I’ve found in them. Being able to hear the voices of others and wanting others to do so as well. My greatest joy as a historian is to use the words of scholars, commentators, observers – of all colours and creeds, all genders and backgrounds – to make the past come to life. When I find voices, characters, people trying to make sense of the world, of love or friendship, of suffering or sorrow, I can’t wait to share them.
That, I think, is what reading is about. Not disappearing into silence of a library where one’s thoughts are reserved for oneself, so precious as to be worthy of solemn reverence, but shouted from the rooftops for all to hear and learn from. And really clever people, like Jane Austen, Cicero, Einstein and others might sound like the trick is to read a lot and to go to libraries. That’s the easy bit. What is much harder is to write things that other people want to read. Trust me.