Books can take care of themselves

Little Free library Methwold Rosie Redzia

I once bought a six-volume set of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion. It had been printed in 1717, less than fifty years after the author’s death, and when the English Civil War was as close as the Second World War is today. The leather binding had been repaired with electrical tape, so I paid just 50p a volume. How could something so old be so cheap? But that’s a book for you. For objects that seem so fragile, they are remarkably resilient. They dry out if they get wet. Pages tear, but not volumes. Burning them is hard: it’s a symbolic act or sometimes a desperate one. Perhaps the present fashion for paper recycling will be a greater threat.

Art is precious. We keep our children’s drawings for decades, unable to throw them away because they represent the people who made them. We protect great art with locks and alarms. When a painting is stolen, the great fear is that it might be damaged: money is a secondary concern. Fanatics destroy art. They did it in Europe during the Reformation and they are doing it now in Syria and Iraq. Art is irreplaceable because it is made by irreplaceable people. Both are precious and vulnerable; both deserve care and protection. That is not to equate inanimate objects with human beings, though. Art matters because it symbolises and shares what matters to humanity: that’s why people who burn books always go on to burning people.

Books, it turns out, are a very good way to safeguard art and the values it holds. We can see broken temples and statues from the classical era, but it is books that allow us to hear Socrates’ defence of truth and honesty during his trial. Without books, the voices of those who have lived before us, of those who live in other countries and cultures, of those we will never meet, would all be denied us. A few simple symbols recorded on a surface have given us access to the whole human universe. They have prevented us from lapsing into final barbarism, though we have at times come close.

I like the idea that, years from now, these little regular marvels will still be lying forgotten at the back of a cupboard or in some small town junk shop. Seeds can wait a very long time for fertile soil. The books that do survive the recycling bin will blossom for anyone with the curiosity to pick them up and reward them with a document of another time and a glimpse of how some people thought and felt then. They don’t need looking after. Like messages in bottles, they can bob about and take care of themselves. If you’d like a printed copy, drop me a line and I’ll put it in the post.

The difference between enjoying and participating


Opera DudesThe Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and adopted very fast, between 1946 and 1948, by nations reacting to the horrors of the Second World War. It is somewhat neglected nowadays, both in spirit and in fact, but it remains a benchmark of what human beings aspire to be and, since it was ratified by the United Kingdom, it is a standard to which we must hold ourselves. Among its articles is the 27th, which begins by stating that:

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

We have made good progress towards meeting this promise since 1948, through the work of local government, the Arts Council and, perhaps more than any other single body, the BBC. It has probably never been easier to enjoy the arts. Their quality, diversity and accessibility in Britain is extraordinary and a cause for celebration.

But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes an important distinction between enjoying the arts and participating in the cultural life of the community. Both rights are fundamental—and different. One can enjoy the arts alone, intimately, without anyone knowing about it. Millions of commuters do so every day, cocooned with their iPods, Kindles and tablets as the train rushes them from work to home.

In contrast to these private experiences, participating in the cultural life of the community is a public and shared act. And it is central to how individuals find and create the common ground that makes a community or a society. It is why Classical Athens developed the civic ritual of theatre and the civic process of democracy simultaneously. Totalitarian regimes do not bother much with private artistic tastes as long as they control the cultural life of the community. It is the difference between passive consumption and active participation, and each has very different results for individuals, communities and democracy.

There are endless ways of participating in the cultural life of the community. Rural touring is certainly one. In gathering in the village hall for an event that they or their neighbours are responsible for organising, people affirm not just their cultural tastes and values but also their willingness to be a community in the first place. In all my conversations with people about rural touring, over more than ten years now, the most consistent reason they give for being involved is that it brings the community together. Whether they are promoters, neighbours or incomers, the people who turn up on a cold February nights to see an unknown play by an equally unfamiliar theatre group, do so to support the community. And, of course, the best way to promote our values is to enact them. It’s not what we say but what we do that makes a difference.

This is a short extract from the draft of A Wider Horizon. The draft goes out today to the people who’ve been involved in the project for correction and further thought. The design process begins next month and it will be more fun than usual thanks to Rosie Redzia’s fantastic drawings, which will be on every page if I can manage it. The book will be published on 15 July 2015 and available as a free download here.