You probably love books. Why else would you be here, right? But do you love books as much as Michael McGirr loves books? Does anyone?
Father, schoolteacher, reviewer, editor and writer Michael McGirr’s Books That Saved My Life: Reading for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure is a paean to the sheer joy of reading, exploring forty texts that can enrich us in all manner of ways. Some are recent, such as Harry Potter; some ancient, such as The Iliad. There are memoirs, poetry and many of the world’s great novels. Read on for an extract...
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
At the school where I work, we run a special program in the depths of winter, immediately after the midyear examinations. We take our sixteen-year- old students to parts of the city they seldom visit, in order to ask them to think about justice in the broader community. Most of the students take their exams seriously and so, for quite a while, they will have been focussed on screens or desks about eighteen inches in front of their noses. It is time for them to look up and remind themselves that the world is a large and complex place, and our personal ambitions are only grains of sand on a vast beach.
I have been a teacher since Plato founded the academy and, in that time, have seen trends in education come and go, come again and go again. With each passing year, I am more convinced that the most important things that happen in a school are beyond easy measurement. We can be caught in a whirlwind of calibration, statistics, graphs, scores and results; and, like any gale, these are forces that play havoc with your hair, if not your whole head. I understand why we have assessment and standards, and I understand how clear standards often help less-gifted students. Nevertheless, a good deal of educational fine print is an expression of a deep anxiety, the rot that can drain schools of life. You have to remember there is always a person under all these numbers. Human beings do not always grow according to the progression points assigned by a bureaucracy. Nor do they ever grow without taking risks.
On one of our retreat days, I was with a delightful group of young men in inner Melbourne. Our program was simple. We began by sitting out in the cold for half an hour or so as the rest of the world was scuttling off to work, just watching the passing parade. Then we visited a centre that helps homeless young people. Our guide took us to several places where people sleep rough, and the students were surprised by how ingeniously they manage to hide themselves in a crowded city. Later in the day we visited a court to see justice in action for people at the raw end of life’s deal.
One of our boys was Antonio. He was a great kid, otherwise I would hardly be bothered telling this story. His instincts were a little authoritarian but not unkind. He did not believe in safe-injecting spaces for the drug-dependent because, in his view, such facilities might encourage an unhealthy lifestyle. He wanted rapid solutions to youth homelessness. While he was one of those for whom the word ‘crime’ is never far from its shadow, ‘punishment’, he believed, like Plato, that education could solve many of the world’s problems. He could articulate his point of view with clarity and tact, if not always a lot of empathy.
For lunch that day, we went to a vegetarian café run by the Hare Krishnas. It was a far cry from the Golden Arches, but— surprise, surprise—the students enjoyed the bean curry and mango pudding. Our conversation started with the encounters of the morning and soon moved to the recent examinations, because the boys had received their results for English. Antonio had one of the best grades in the year level of 260 students. He was understandably pleased with himself.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘you clearly must have enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird.’
The students had been required to read the famous book by Harper Lee (1926–2016), the only one she published in her lifetime. It has been a staple of high-school English since it was published in 1960, the year before I was born.
‘Oh no,’ he said.
‘What do you mean by Oh no?’
‘Well, sir, I never read it.’
I was flabbergasted. ‘What do you mean, you never read it?’
‘Well, sir, I started and got a few pages into it but decided I didn’t like it and I didn’t have time to waste on reading all those pages, so I just used the plot summary on Google.’
This is a book about why Antonio should have read—really read—To Kill a Mockingbird. It is a book about why he should still go ahead and read it, now that he is never going to face it in an examination but is only going to face the rest of his life, which I hope will be wonderful.
It is possible that, had he read the novel, his result in the examination might not have been as good. He might not have been able to make his argument with as much clarity and precision. His certainties might have been muddied by the novel itself. But clarity and precision are not the primary purposes of reading. To Kill a Mockingbird, like any great work of literature, has far more nuance than any plot summary, however detailed, can hope to provide. The thing that literature offers, not unlike our retreat day, is an experience of a broader world, one we can learn from but not control. Literature is, as my friend the poet Peter Steele (see Chapter 33) used to say, an engagement with the imagination of another human being. Reading is among the few communal activities that you do on your own.
Like programs of community service, literature has a significant role in helping people to develop empathy and compassion. These are not measurable commodities, but society is aching for lack of them. I teach in a world that is starving in spite of its own excess. Literature can feed people who are being left hungry by a culture that is all package and little substance. It is one of the luxuries we can’t do without.
Deep in To Kill a Mockingbird, there is a description of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, an intimidating pillar of the white Southern town where this drama of race relations plays out. Mrs Dubose is addicted to the morphine she uses to control pain. With the realisation of this uncomfortable truth, an imaginary border between respectability and its opposite comes tumbling down. Mrs Dubose’s house is what you might call a safe-injecting space. There are a number of descriptions of her cold saliva, glistening around her mouth like ice.
At one point, Harper Lee notes: ‘Her face was the color of a dirty pillow-case.’ This is such a multivalent image that any synopsis is likely to overlook it. It doesn’t add a great deal to the story. But it adds enormously to the texture of the storytelling, in ways that are difficult neatly to explain. A dirty pillowcase suggests a private life that isn’t as orderly as Mrs Dubose believes the rest of the world should be; a face like dirty linen suggests that she reveals more of herself to the world than she would like. The image creates, for the reader, a new way of looking at a person and hence at the wider world. It is eye-opening. It also allows compassion for a woman who is lost in the folds of angry passivity—her spirit is bedridden.
I’m sorry Antonio didn’t have the inclination, or make the time, for such slow reading: he missed out on a writer’s craft that spins off in several directions at once. Harper Lee used an image that can help us, sixty years later, understand the drug-dependent around us without jumping to cut-and- dried solutions. This kind of writing asks you to look, to listen and to find a shared humanity.
There is another thing that Antonio missed out on. His life seemed to be moving in one direction. He had great ambitions for his future, and good luck to him. I am sure he will make a fine lawyer, especially if he bothers to read the relevant court documents. Perhaps one day he will be a judge and I will be hauled before him on charges of inconveniencing students with ideas of no cash value. But a full life is lived in two directions: backwards as well as forwards.
The current edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that can sometimes be found lying dog-eared around our school, says on the cover, ‘Over 30,000,000 copies sold.’ My own books have sold somewhat fewer copies, so I am the first to assert that popularity is not always a measure of quality. Nor, for that matter, is unpopularity. But that many copies of a book in circulation give it a special status in our culture, meaning that all sorts of people have a relationship with it. It has become a kind of cultural bridge, something that enables people to reach each other over caverns and valleys. Giving such a book space in your life is one way of overcoming isolation. It helps you get off your island.
I recently taught a boy whose copy of To Kill a Mockingbird said on the cover, ‘Over 5,000,000 copies sold.’ His book was twenty-five million copies younger than the current one but it was exactly the edition I had when I was at school. I asked the boy where he got it.
‘It was my father’s,’ he said. ‘He had it when he was at school. It’s his favourite book. He lent it to me.’
‘Have you discussed it with him?’
‘Yeah, he remembers every detail of it.’
‘Have you enjoyed it?’
‘You know what? It made me think about mob mentality.’
Here was a life moving backwards and forwards at the same time. In this case, the book had become a bridge back to his father’s youth, and also to a future in which he was aware of the ways people get swept away by the mood of their community.
I had a similar experience when I chatted with a young woman on the desk at our local pool. She was reading a battered old copy of The Lord of the Rings with a yellow cover that I recognised from my own youth. She, too, had been lent the copy by her father and their love for it was something they shared. Another person serving on the counter at the place where my fourteen-year- old son buys computer games, a woman with a tide of tattoos rising above her collar, noticed I was buying a DVD of Father Brown, the most tweedy of all detective series.
‘Oh, I love that,’ she said, showing far more enthusiasm for my G-rated entertainment than for my son’s latest version of Destroy the Universe from the Comfort of Your Couch.
‘Yes, my grandfather introduced me to the original stories.’
G. K. Chesterton (see Chapter 21), the creator of Father Brown, would have laughed at this. He laughed at nearly everything. That’s what made him such a serious writer.
There is an old adage that you won’t go broke by creating fear. If you can make your customers feel inadequate in some way, they will buy whatever you can promote to relieve their symptoms, even if it’s snake oil. This applies to every stage of life. Parents of infants can buy CDs of Mozart and Bach to improve the mental development of their children and help them get ahead of the pack. I have heard that students can buy CDs of Mozart and Bach to help them relax before examinations, and that businesspeople can buy CDs of Mozart and Bach to help improve their decision-making and optimise their workplace performance. Old people can buy CDs of Mozart and Bach to help them sleep and even improve their memories. I have wondered if these CDs all include the same pieces. Wouldn’t it be better just to enjoy the music, whatever your stage of life, and let it take you to surprising places?
I hope this book might put something in the other column. It is a simple and heartfelt invitation to an anxious and defensive world—one increasingly prone to judge others rather than try to understand them—to join a quiet party. The party is a celebration of some of the books that have brought wisdom and pleasure to my life and the lives of many others. And solace, a word that we don’t encounter as often as we need to.
Yes, I am thinking of young people like Antonio, who is now about to graduate from school. He is entering an exciting time of life: travel, career, friendship and hopefully new ideas. It is a time when people realise that the important things in life need structures and commitments to protect them. There’s no point in saying you love your parents without making a commitment to be in in touch with them regularly. A career needs a structure and goals. Love needs an enormous outlay of time and unselfishness. Health needs decisions about diet, exercise and sleep. And so on.
Nobody is going to argue with any of this. You can find most of these ideas in fortune cookies and life-coaching seminars. The only difference between those two is that you can buy half a dozen fortune cookies for a dollar and at least have something to eat.
At every season of life, the mind needs to be nurtured. It needs challenges. Reading is as much a part of investing in yourself as are gyms, financial planning and relationships. It will feed your hungry mind and take your heart on a journey. It will help you on the path of one of life’s most elusive and hard-won freedoms, freedom from the ego. And it is never too late to start. This book is dedicated to a dear friend who was enthusing about a new book he had discovered in the days before he died. The book was not about death but nevertheless it helped with his journey.
This book is not a prescription. It rests on a belief that people often cope with a frightening world by hiding behind motivational slogans. We have much more to gain from finding a home for ourselves in complex narratives. Reading is not the only place to surrender to such complex narratives, but it has been the best one for me. I will talk about my connection with a certain number of books and, often enough, with the people and circumstances that brought them into my life. I have chosen forty or so texts that have enriched me; I could easily have chosen forty more, and forty after that. In each case, I have reason to be grateful for an extraordinary gift—a gift that is taking me a lifetime to unwrap. The excitement has never worn off. And I hope that one day Antonio might share it.
Books That Saved My Life: Reading for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure is the perfect Christmas gift for the booklover in your life.
It is available now in all good bookshops.