A Hunger for Books

08 Dec

Over on The Guardian site (where I receive my morning orientation on the world), in the beloved book section (honest, that’s the bit I care about, you can keep your politics), they have posted the Nobel Prize acceptance speech made by Doris Lessing. I have blogged twice previously about her here, admiring her attitude toward being awarded the Nobel Prize and I was very much hoping I’d be able to find her speech. I did not know her previously to her Nobel Prize, and now I wish I knew her better: really, I wish I could take her to dinner and talk and talk.

Here is her speech, “A Hunger for Books.”

I applaud her. I cannot physically do it, at this early hour in my living room with a bouncy baby next to me and a sleeping wife in the next room, but if I were present  and if she were reading the speech — she did not attend the ceremony — then you can imagine me applauding until my hands are red and tingling and shaking and numb. I am deeply impressed.

Some of the things which she talks about are matters which I have previously spoken on, or have been thinking about of late. I won’t touch on some of them here because, as I said, I have done so already.  But there is one very interesting piece I wanted to talk about. Interesting to me, at any rate, you can please yourselves.

In her article, she talks in explicit detail about the state of a school she visited in Zimbabwe, the utter dismal poverty, the lack of books, the sunken depression of the teachers, when faced with such horrible conditions. And she contrasts this to a nice, pretty English school which she visits to give a speech, the very next day.

For so many of us — Americans and otherwise — we cannot truly comprehend the poverty and the utter depth with which these people (in Zimbabwe and many other places) live in eras which have long since passed us by. We can see all the commercials with that bearded bastard from the Christian Children’s Charity thingummy on TV, as he shows us sad children from somewhere in the world. We can watch American Idol seasons where “Idol gives back,” and they send someone like Simon Cowell to places in Africa where people live several families to one little sod-built thing that can barely be called a home. But like so much else that we can see, and hear about, and read about, we cannot truly comprehend it. We just can’t. It’s like being asked to full comprehend the idea that millions of people have died from diseases, or starvation, or the Black Death in ages past. We can keep the number, we can describe the number, but the number is incomprehensible no less. The human mind cannot cope.

Similarly, we can see these horribly poor places and sympathize, but there is no comprehension. There is no full, proper realization behind it, there just can’t be, because we don’t a proper basis.

The reason I got to thinking about this is, I wrote my first handwritten letter to Tori, yesterday (a byproduct of the last blog column, which has led to pen pals, something I am delighting in and will talk about at greater length, later), and in that letter, I reminisced about my years in the Virgin Islands, on St. Croix, where the chief industries are 1) tourism 2) crime. At the time, I was too young to full comprehend the place. At a certain age, where you live is where you live. I’ve lived a lot of places and they are Where You Live, and that’s it.

It’s in recent times that I’ve thought of St. Croix and truly understood the utter poverty of the place. It was not Zimbabwe. There were schools, good schools — thanks entirely to the Catholic church and the missionaries who worked hard against really, really hard circumstances. It was civilized, to an extent, although gunshots were common enough in the night, in the vicinity, and it was not the inch-thick steel bars bolted into the cement around every window which made you uncomfortable, it was the thought of them not being there.  It was an island of two lifestyles: the rich and accomodated tourists, and the locals who were not paid by the tourist trade and were poor, or on the street, or insane, or working with the mafia, that other big employer.

All this is by way of explaining that poverty is something I really, really don’t talk about (and will continue to really, really not talk about. In fact, there is no comments section on this post. And there will not be. Sorry) but that poverty is something I do have a grasp of, an understanding of, a comprehension of. Though it was in times past, I remember, and I comprehend it. And even St. Croix was miles and miles above Zimbabwe and the situations she’s talking about. I can comprehend to a certain level, but I cannot comprehend to the level she’s talking about.

It infuriates me, when people like Bono (from the ‘band’ U2 which makes ‘music,’ I am told) bangs on and on about Darfur. Not because I have any lack of sympathy for Darfur, but because…I guess because of Bono himself. It makes me happy that maybe these people will see help and money, both of which they need, but it makes me furiously, seeing red mad when Darfur suddenly pops up on American Idol, on 7th Heaven, on the tip of Bono’s tongue, because it’s not a good cause that we are moved to do anything about, it is a good cause which has become a fad and so we’re all going to talk about it a bit. It’s about as soulful and heartfelt in these circumstances as people, decades ago, having a White Africa kick. It’s a fad charity, and then attention will turn and money will dry up and no one will care because the problems will still be there, but they are So Yesterday. And I go furious thinking about it. (And I am not the only one; ask people who are doing work, real honest-to-god risking their lives work in regions like this — they are grateful for the money, disgusted by the celebrities, and mostly they just get on with their jobs. They understand.)

All of this is reactionary to Doris Lessing’s magnificent speech, which is wise on many levels that go a great deal beyond a discussion of Africa and poverty.  It is a fantastic article which I tried to read last night and, realizing that my state of mind was too frazzled and busy to comprehend, put off until this morning when I could focus. I’m glad I did. The article makes me very glad she’s won the Nobel Prize, she deserves it entirely.

And now, there is a baby who would like to be held, and a cat who has decided it is time for my wife to get up, and so I shall leave you and go hold the baby and drive away the kitty — who really just wants someone to pay attention to her, so she can properly shun them — and I shall have some tea and a lovely afternoon spent writing and being painfully aware that I Am Not Doris Lessing, but I don’t mind. There are authors with big, big footsteps, and I don’t mind splashing in the puddles left by their prints in the mud.

Take care.

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Posted by on December 8, 2007 in Uncategorized


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