I tend to avoid Edinburgh’s Old Town. It is incredibly touristy and while beautiful, the sound of tinned bagpipes and the sight of tinned tartan tends to grate after a few short minutes. One thing which always amuses me as I pass is the statue of philosopher David Hume, which sits right outside the High Court. For such a rational person, it seems incongruous that by him usually stands a phalanx of Jehovah’s Witnesses and his toe is golden from all the rubs for luck from passers-by. Anyway, David Hume is mentioned in an exhibition just down the way in the National Library at the moment, which is about the Scottish Enlightenment. He’s mentioned a lot, being a key figure in that particular part of our nation’s past, but Hume’s words feature pride of place on the National Library’s steps. ‘Literature has been the ruling passion of my life’. Apposite for a mighty repository of words like NLS.
My life has been guided by books. I give them out for a living right now. My words have been in one or two as well. I was brought up to read and I am to this day a fierce reader. I go through fits and starts but in the last week I have got through a couple of books and hopefully the coming Christmas break will afford a lot more time just to curl up and ignore the festivities. I have a pile of four sitting by my bed now and that’s without considering the two currently in my library eBook app and several more in the Kindle app on my iPad. My time is precious but the joy of just sitting and reading, be it in bed or on a train, cannot be underestimated.
I’ve found that when I want to find out about something, I turn to a book first. The Internet is very useful for a lot of things but it tends to be a whole lot of noise and chatter. A book is between you and the writer. It’s their words channelled through your consciousness, your own thoughts and ideas. When I did yoga earlier in the year, I learned from a book. A lot of what I’ve read about gender and particularly when it isn’t binary has come between a set of covers. Plus a whole lot of what I know and understand about basic human interaction has been from books. I think that has partly been because I take things in better if I’m reading them. I can’t listen for long. Plus a book has some authority. The Internet has some very authoritative sources kicking around but you have to know how and where to look. Same with books, certainly, but they are easier to spot.
Often reading a book is far easier than actual human interaction. I remember taking a book to a school disco. (It was about The Simpsons, as I recall.) I read in my high school common room and got some strange looks when I burst out laughing reading Bill Bryson. To this day I try to get to the football early, partly to dodge the crowds but also to read the programme. In recent weeks I have read my OU textbook in two different football grounds before the game started. Having a book with me is a useful thing. I can retreat behind it if I need to. It’s a control valve, often a very valuable one.
My tastes have evolved in recent years. When I was a kid, I liked Roald Dahl and football books. As a teenager I read more broadly. Douglas Adams, JD Salinger, crime novels, Iain Banks. A lot of John Muir. Into my twenties more crime fiction but it was interspersed with football books again, more travel, nature, memoirs. Muriel Spark too. My favourite book is now The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd though for a long time it was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. My to-read pile fluctuates. When I want to read, I go into high gear and get a mix; at times when I just can’t, a football book or two will be the way to go.
Reading has helped me reach out to people. I’ve found common ground with many people based on books and as a fairly solitary person I appreciate it. Like David Hume, literature has been a ruling passion in my life and it has made it inextricably better, for the days with people and those without, when all I want to do is avoid the overload. A book in whatever form is always nearby and always waiting to be opened and savoured, with any luck.