The Companionship of Books by Peter Leyland
The Companionship of Books: Creative Reading
"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.
"It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with the people who were alive." James Baldwin
I began a recent talk about educational research with this quotation from Baldwin, at an online conference from Wroclaw in Poland. I then spoke about my reading - books and articles that I have mentioned in this monthly blog: War and Peace, The Plague, Performance Poetry, The Poetry of Climate Change. As I was talking, someone responded with the comment - ‘Ah, creative reading.’
The conference was entitled, An Ecology of Life and Learning and was run by The European Society for Research into the Education of Adults. It is a means of bringing together ideas in adult education from all over the world. Over the last six years, I have met delegates from Italy, America, Japan, Canada, Sweden, Norway and many other countries.
This year I was presenting my proposal for a PhD study, The Companionship of Books, based on Montaigne’s idea that he had used after a friend had died of The Plague in the C16. He thought that reading books, rather than having lovers or friends, was the only therapy that endures through life. I have shared this idea productively with adult students in the numerous courses on novels and poetry that I have taught over the past few years, and many have been enthusiastic listeners. In order to be successful my study must be about a hundred thousand words, be approved at university level, and contain some new knowledge.
Sometimes I question the validity of this study into the value of reading literature, ‘Well, it’s just an escape isn’t it?’ people say; or, ‘That’s not real research,’ and I wonder well, what is? One of the delegates at the recent conference said he thought that educational research was ‘a space that allowed and celebrated confusion. A space full of questions rather than answers…a place to think difficult thoughts together and ask difficult questions’; another, Italian herself, spoke about how she was just beginning to teach Italian as a foreign language and was giving us her ‘auto/biographical reflections on knowing and self’; a third gave a paper about the working life of his two grandfathers, ‘the story of working-class men in search of a better life’. As this has a bearing on my own research, I will quote from it at length.
One of his grandfathers had given him the gift of Ladybird books: ‘I would lie on my bed and read of birds that travelled from Africa and the Arctic and that had beautiful songs that could fill the woods. I studied the pictures and committed them to memory – only opening the books to expose the side with the image before checking the name and description on the left. But the real joy, the joy that lasts a lifetime, takes place when the book comes to life. This happens when I see a chaffinch, or hear a blackbird singing in the same place at the same time every day – just like the book said.’
The Companionship of Books, as I have found, is not just about reading literature but can be extended to other reading forms, such as biography, science, geography and so on. During a course that I was giving to my WEA students called, Reading Can Enhance Our Lives, when asked to say what book they would give to a friend, suggestions ranged from a book about how maps relate to politics, a tale about a shepherd’s life, a novel by Josephine Tey about Richard III, a letter from Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, and a book exploring the divinity of Christ. This was much more diverse than I had expected and confirmed my developing idea that this ‘book effect’, for want of a better expression, can be found in all sorts of places.
More evidence of this I found unexpectedly in an excellent article by French author and journalist, Delphine Minoui, writing about the brutal civil war in Syria. Her piece, ‘Syria’s Rebel Librarians’, describes how Ahmad Muaddamani, a young Syrian fighter living in Daraya during the bombing by Assad’s forces, is shown a pile of books in the ruins of the damaged town. Encouraged by friends he picks up a book about self-awareness from the rubble and begins reading. He then finds others on Arabic and international literature, philosophy, theology and science and begins to collect them together. He is joined by volunteers and soon they have 15,000 books which they catalogue and store alphabetically in the basement of an abandoned building.
‘These young Syrians cohabited with death night and day,’ Minoui says. ‘Most of them had already lost everything – their homes, their friends, their parents. Amid the chaos, they clung to books as if to life, hoping for a better tomorrow, for a better political system.’
Minoui continues with more examples of how this young man and his friend Abu el-Ezz, who has been severely wounded by a barrel bomb, begin to believe in the good that books could do them. Abu el-Ezz choses books analysing political Islam, books of Arabic poetry and books of psychology. ‘Books set us free’, he says. ‘They don’t mutilate they restore. Reading helps me think positively, chase away negative ideas.’ He talks about the most popular book in the library, The Alchemist, by Paul Coelho, a book about the journey of self-discovery.
‘Books,’ says Minoui, ‘were helping transport these young Syrians somewhere else.’ They had helped them to create a semblance of normality amidst the chaos. She asked another young man, Abu Anas which book in particular had stood out for him and he replied that it was Al Qawqa’a, The Shell. This is a semi-autobiographical account by the Syrian writer, Mustafa Khalifa, about his detention in Palmyra. It is full of the harrowing detail of torture and the jailers’ barbarism. Books like this make a distinct impression.
It made me think about my lockdown reading. I had read a number of novels, including Primo Levi’s book, If This is a Man, about his imprisonment in Auschwitz, which seemed to echo The Shell mentioned above. It is a book that really makes you confront yourself and ask, ‘Can this really be?’ And yet you know that it can. I had also read War and Peace, Tolstoy’s epic novel about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and its effect on the lives of four Russian families which I wrote about on this blog, explaining how I identified thoroughly with Peter, the main character. Through him the book transported me to a place where I could self-reflect on my study of reading literature: I felt great love for Natasha and much sorrow at the untimely death of Andrew, her prospective husband; I laughed about Napoleon sucking throat lozenges as he fought off a cold during The Battle of Borodino; I re-acted with horror to Peter’s witnessing of the cold-blooded execution of Russian prisoners by French troops; I felt an awe about Tolstoy’s wisdom and his ability to make me feel that he was speaking to me, although he has been dead for over a hundred years.
To return to the beginning of this article, to James Baldwin and to the comment about ‘creative reading’: we don’t only read books for information, for escape or as a trigger for sadness, joy or any of the numerous other emotions we can feel. My research is showing that reading can take us so much further. By its imaginative power it can overcome any boundaries we might feel, both physical and mental, and free us to seek new worlds and new horizons, such as those of birdwatching or the importance of maps as referred to above. I recently read Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel about how humans use robots to help them avoid their loneliness. Books, I am sure, can be used in the same way.
Peter Leyland 25/04/21
Baldwin, James (1963) “The doom and the glory of knowing who you are” Life Magazine
Bainbridge, Alan (2021) A Tale of Two Grandfathers An Ecology of Life and Learning: Discourses, dialogue and diversity in biographical research
Ishiguro, Kazuo (2020) Klara and the Sun Faber, London
Minoui, Delphine (2021) Syria’s Rebel Librarians The Guardian 16th March
Photograph by Ahmad Muaddamani, Guardian News and Media Ltd.
*I now have a copy of The Book Collectors of Daraya (2020) by Delphine Minoui, on which the article referred to above was based