Six of my 16 great great grandparents, on my mother’s side, were economic migrants, who came to England not so much in search of a better life as in a desperate bid to survive. They were the fortunate ones, because thousands of their peers perished due to starvation.
By the next generation, according to the comprehensive family tree that my father compiled, one or two had skilled occupations – though one was killed in an industrial accident. The third generation were a little more settled; my maternal grandfather, for example, was a warehouse manager. It was similar on my father’s side: I recall my paternal grandfather as a middle class soul, who lived in a semi-detached house with an immaculate garden – but he had been born into an overcrowded house, left school at a young age and became educated through evening classes.
Education rescued my family from poverty – extreme poverty, going back just a couple of generations and more. I can now understand more fully why my parents would say to me, over and over again when I was a boy: ‘Read more books, Philip!’ ‘Don’t just read the sports pages in the newspaper! Read the rest of it as well!’ Books were our wallpaper: thick spines displaying authors’ names – Shakespeare, Greene, Bellow, Murdoch, Lessing and many more – filled the shelves on landings and in hallways as well as the living room and bedrooms.
I wasn’t a bookish child, you see. I was outdoorsy and sporty and I got nagged into becoming an author. My ambition aged 15 was to become a professional cricketer. I think being a writer is better, though. I agree with Carl Sagan, cited in a recent UG blog, that books are a form of magic, a way in which to travel through time. For my family, they were more magical still: they were the means of survival and created a path to a better future.
Books may have had an even more positive influence than most of us realize. In a fascinating finding, aired recently on a BBC documentary The Violence Paradox, there is evidence indicating that the great humanitarian reforms of the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries – abolition of slavery, torture, executions, racial segregation – were attributable to a significant degree to people becoming more literate. And the explanation extends beyond the observation that educated people become more politically aware, to include the insight that reading novels assists our ability to display empathy, and therefore identify with victims of violence and seek justice. Authors need to understand the concept of which character’s ‘point of view’ you are writing from. The point here is that it isn’t the author’s, and it isn’t the readers’ either – we are consciously escaping into someone else’s.
Books do have the capacity to spread evil ideas, but in aggregate reading makes us more tolerant, more aware, and less violent. Some people might say that the wheel, or the ship, or the electric light bulb, or the programmable computer, is the greatest invention. But truly the most brilliant invention in human history is the printed and bound book.
- Philip Whiteley is an experienced author of non-fiction and fiction, and a ghostwriter. He writes novels under the byline PJ Whiteley. More at www.pjwhiteley.com