Sunday, August 26, 2007

"You learn stuff from books, don't you?"

The uncommonly nice weather defeated my best intentions this weekend, so you'll have to wait a day or two for a full post on David Kynaston's Austerity Britain: 1945-51. But while I was reading outside today, I did come across another passage that makes a nice appendix to Friday's post about the general public's reading habits. One of the many diarists on whom Kynaston draws for his remarkable history, Kenneth Preston, writes about stopping in at a second-hand bookshop in the spring of 1947:
Whilst we were having a look round we heard the voices of two women in a really incredible conversation. One yelled out to another, who was evidently looking at some books, "Nah! then, don't buy all e' booiks." The other said "Nay, we don't read much at our 'ouse." The other replied "No! we don't. I've nivver read a book i'my life." The other said "No! I often wish I'd read a bit more. You learn stuff from books, don't you?" It seems incredible that there could be anyone who had never read a book. The woman who said she hadn't, Kath said, would be over fifty. These are the folk who vote!
Preston, a "middle-aged English teacher" at a good school, reveals his class blinders in the last line, but his earlier surprise isn't that foreign to contemporary discussions of America's reading. And though I know (and, as I noted Friday, ultimately accept) that there are people who never read, I have to admit to sharing some of Preston's shock every time I think about a life without books. All that richness and knowledge, utterly drained away. I suspect that feeling may bear a resemblance to what religious believers feel when they contemplate the life of an atheist--and perhaps I'm just a pessimist, but in neither case do I expect proselytizing to have much long-term effect.

But I hate to close a weekend on a down note--and there's plenty to share from Austerity Britain that's funny and entertaining, even in the midst of rationing, shortages, and weariness. So I'll share a moment Kynaston relates from the spring of 1946, taken from the diary of a middle-aged mother in Surbiton:
"Bananas. Yes, bananas!! The first for 6 yrs. They are Robin's [her son's] really, as they are only allowed for under 18's . . .Robin says the boys are bringing the peel to school & putting it down for others to slip on. The monkeys." Two days later, "Robin came in to room with banana & wanted to know which end to start peeling it from!! . . . We told him from stem end, & later I wondered if that was right."
So much of the texture of daily life under rationing is packed into those couple of sentences--and the fans of classic comedy among you were surely glad to learn that even children who hadn't seen bananas for years knew instantly what to do with the peels. Bertie Wooster (or at least Gussie Fink-Nottle) would be proud. The human spirit, after all, is hard to crush.

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