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{22/05/2012}   Books

I have just finished an unexpectedly good book, semi-autobiographical, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, in which a life without books forms a significant part of the story.  During the 1970s Cultural Revolution in China, educated children (I am over-simplifying) were sent to remote villages to be re-educated, ie a life without books, music and formal education.

Imagine growing up and reading and loving stories, for example, then being sent away potentially never to see or read a book again.  One of the delightful things about the Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress story is that when a book is discovered and read, it ignites genuine appreciation and love of the story and the life it evokes.  The children (older teens) are able to recreate parts of the books, imagine what life outside their village is like and to escape into a literary induced world.

I have been on train journeys without a book or anything to read and it has rendered me fidgety and desperate to have something to read.  I have even contemplated asking a fellow passenger to borrow something, anything, they have that I could read.  Books aren’t just about learning facts or reference, they are about escapism, challenging not only your mind but your imagination and creativity.

However, the books that form part of the secret reading in Balzac are classics, books written in days when by and large the quality of writing was exemplary.  Nowadays, picking up a random book in a shop because it looks interesting isn’t going to guarantee you a good read because it is increasingly apparent to me that a lot of dreadfully written books are published and you have no way of knowing which are the ones to avoid until you start reading.

Chick lit is one thing, it’s easy reading, but it can at least be well written.  I am not talking about the content so much; there are books that are just poorly edited, badly written and which are too awful to read.  I would far rather have fewer choices but know that each book available to buy were a classic in waiting.  There are very few books I have read of late that could or should stand the test of time.  And I’m not even going to dip into the trash that is biographies of wannabes.  I can’t cope with the crap-celebrity-biography genre, it pains me and they are a disgrace to publishing and proper writers.

I keep wanting to write about Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress but I don’t want to give it away, it’s well worth reading.  The book ends with the most powerful line I have possibly ever read.  It’s an extremely interesting take on the influence of literature.  If I were to have a stash of, let’s say, the front table of Waterstone’s, newly published books as the only books I could read and re-read, I fear that over years any writing I did would degenerate, I would long for an unattainable and unnatural perception of perfection, my imagination would be left stunted and I wouldn’t be too sure that I was missing out by not having more books.  Ok, so that’s (hopefully) an exaggeration but loving and being influenced by literature is almost equally as worrying to me as it was to Maoist China, albeit for very different reasons.  For me the joy of reading now is more about the rare treats of discovering a book that’s well written, is of enduring relevance and interest and which transports me into another world.

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