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Things you learn from reading books

It’s amazing what you can learn from books.

Sounds silly, that sentence…

I love when I’m deep in a book and something stops me halfway through a paragraph and makes me say “Holy shit!” out loud – I never knew that! Or, “Wow. Who knew?”

And sometimes it’ll send me off to investigate further.

There are some writers, editors etc., and I suppose readers, who don’t like this. They don’t anything that makes you interrupt the story, that keeps your nose in the leaves.

But for me, a really rich book is one that makes you pause every now and then and think about what you’re reading, ponder the meaning of what you’ve read, assimilate the knowledge this piece of writing has given you over and above an entertaining read.

This is why people read fiction. This is why science indicates that people who read fiction are more empathetic.

Here are three examples:

homo deus.jpg

I started reading Homo Deus, a recent non-fiction book, the sequel to Sapiens, which you might have heard of.

But before I go deep into it, I wanted to read a similarly titled novel – Men Like Gods, by HG Wells.

men like gods.jpg

An interesting book. We are clearly still in Wells’ Age of Confusion, with our population soaring way, way past what Wells worried was too many (2000m), and our world yet being pillaged by the rich.

But what really amazed me, in a book about a crossing dimensions into new universes (where the telecommunications department knows where every human is at all times but the knowledge can only be used for the good of the individual!) was the fact that the main character commented on the fact that there were thrushes singing in July – that he knew these birds stopped singing by June.

This is a character who writes for a liberal paper in the centre of London.

I’m a zoologist – sorry, I have a doctorate in zoology (there are picky fuckers out there in twitterlandia who like to point out that there’s a difference if I no longer gain employment from zoology except by teaching biology, who I hope die when they’re on a plane and a retired doctor tells them he’s no longer qualified to give them first aid while they suffer cardiac arrest, but I digress) – though not an ornithologist, but I had no idea.

He also commented on the fact that nightingales could be found in Pangbourne and Caversham, both in Reading just outside London were great places for nightingales (I wonder if there are any there now) which was amazing knowledge for an average Joe, too.

Why don’t we all know such things now? Where is our general knowledge of the life of other species around us gone? I was only familiar with the Blackbird and Robin – aside from the magpies and seagulls – back home in my hedgerow.

 

How much we have lost, even from such busy, hedonistic, polluted and poverty-stricken times as 1920’s London.

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Another book I recently read, and commented on in my facebook feed, is Point Counter Point, by the contemporaneous Aldous Huxley, who only predicted the future in this particular novel by talking about the fact that the world would run out of phosphorous, and other important raw materials and minerals due to unhinged addiction to progress, while politicians fucked around with petty, inconsequential nonsense that they hoped with get them elected over someone equally competent – or in competent, as the case usually is – while the problems that really affect us only snowball.

 

The third novel was Meridian, the second novel by Alice Walker, the author of The Colour Purple.

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At the end of the book, Walker describes the main character in the following paragraph:

“On those occasions such was her rage that that she actually felt as if the rich and racist of the world should stand in fear of her, because she – though apparently weak and penniless, a little crazy and without power – was as yet of a resolute and relatively fearless character, which, sufficient in its calm acceptance of its own purpose, could bring the mightiest country to its knees.

And I couldn’t help but think of Greta Thunberg – a beam of light in our own dark times, who seemingly powerless, is nonetheless, so resolute in her purpose that she has an immense effect upon countries.”

It is so often the person who seems weakest who can stand the strongest.

I only hope that in contrast to how people treated people like Meridian in the era of civil rights, that we will appreciate Greta for the positive influence she is on global justice and the survival of our society, and protect her from the evils we know some amongst us would wish her.

 

 

 

What Some Kids Just Cannot Do

http://www.upworthy.com/the-things-a-black-kid-is-often-taught-not-to-do-that-his-white-friends-can-do-are-heartbreaking?c=ufb1

This TED talk made me think…

As some of you might know, I have an insulin-dependant diabetic daughter (IDDD?). She recently had a biopsy to see if she is celiac. It came out negative, luckily for us. I say luckily, because it would have been another pain in the ass to have to deal with, making her diet even more restricted than it is now.

She will probably develop it in the future; but for now, we just have to worry about her diet in terms of sugar intake.

These are what I call first world problems.

They are actual problems, (unlike some of the nonsense you hear people wasting their brain power on) but they can be dealt with.

She had the biopsy for free. I even got free meals while I stayed overnight with her (as a 4-year-old diabetic going under while fasting, they needed to control her sugar with a glucose drip, so she couldn’t do it as a day patient: she loved nearly all of the experience, though.). Her testing strips etc. are free, her insulin his highly subsidised, and I can afford gluten free food.

It’s more of a nuisance than a problem. She’ll never get really sick from either condition.

But that is sometimes hard to handle, considering there are so many sweet foods around.

I’m diabetic too (also type one) and so I don’t have a puritanical view of what she can and cannot eat. Yet sometimes, she just can’t have what the other kids are having for lunch. Even when it’s the last day of school and there’s chocolate custard for dessert. And it’s not easy, emotionally, to have to say no. And watch her cry (kids crocodile tears, mostly, but a little bit of self-pity she’s allowed).

But she gets over it. Next time, maybe she can have a slice of cake. Or if not, she can have a sugar-free sweet to make up, or a square of diabetic chocolate after her natural yogurt.

But imagine having to say to your kid what this guy is talking about on the link above.
Imagine having no reason to say such a thing, except that your child is a different colour. He’s not sick. No doctor said it’s bad for his health.

Except it could be.

It’s hard to get my mind around it, though I have taught kids who went through this kind of thing.

As writers, we’re being encouraged, and encouraging one another, to create characters of colour in our stories and novels. It’s a commendable exercise. I myself have a character in a new novella taking form in my brain, who is a divorced woman of colour with two kids.

We should make sure to, and I intend to, run such work by someone who really does understand the life our characters would lead. Otherwise we risk making the characters, trivial and inaccurate; mere caricatures of the people we intend them to portray. I’ve a feeling we will be told a few things that will make us think as much as this video made me think. And then go change a few things about our work.

They say write what you know, and, despite our best intentions to broaden our work to include characters that are other than white, we should remember that maxim. I don’t mean we should forget about writing minorities into our novels. On the contrary, I mean we should get to know them, so we can write well about them. We should learn their lives, so we can accurately portray them. In the process, we can hopefully eliminate such gaps between what our children have to learn about life regarding their particular conditions.