On Lust, Dust, and Books

Bow down. Bow down to the queen of books. As a kid, if a foot touched a book, we employed a hand gesture, akin to genuflection, to make up for our disrespect. It’s an Indian thing. Doris Lessing’s Nobel speech captures why that gesture makes sense to me. It makes her my queen of books. We have the luxury of arguing over whether books are findable, searchable. We should pay attention to what Lessing said. In 2007 Lessing spoke of Africa, dust filled and hungry for books:

“Please send us books when you get back to London,” one man says. “They taught us to read but we have no books.” Everybody I met, everyone, begged for books.

And I do mean hungry:

Not long ago a friend who had been in Zimbabwe told me about a village where people had not eaten for three days, but they were still talking about books and how to get them, about education.

Lessing captures the faith that education will raise someone from poverty. Perhaps it is ironic that she attacks the Internet and blogging while wondering from where and the publishing of ideas will emerge in Africa. But her criticism seems to me more about the thin nature and “inanities” of much online than the technology itself. Her real concern is that reading begets reading and writing. She focuses on the simple fact that people want to read and write. Some learn from labels on jars or torn sections of novels left behind by those fortunate to have read the whole novel and who tore it for travel ease. In contrast, “We have a treasure-house of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come upon it. A treasure. Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be.”

For all the debate on scanning books and incentives to create, I have to stop and say rot and rubbish. Get the books, the texts to everyone. Now. Don’t tell me someone does not want to read or learn math or engage. Build and reinforce the culture that wanted to feed the body and the mind. As Lessing concluded:

That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is – we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities? I think it is that girl, and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.

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