Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How to educate oneself

(Picture is my hubby - yes, he is very tall - in mouth-watering admiration of a vintage car. And no, it has nothing, well not much, to do with this post.)
Someone read my biography and asked "How do you 'accidentally' educate yourself?" You see, since I finished school before the age of 15, I claim I educated myself by wide and voracious reading. The question made me think, though. I thought the answer was a given, that I read a great deal. But that was making the mistake of thinking everyone is the same as oneself. I don't want this to sound like bragging, because there are plenty of gaps in my general knowledge and whole fields where my ignorance is total. But, when I think about it, there are prerequisites for the act of learning through reading.
1. The desire to read. Strange as we may find this fact, there are quite a lot of people who don't even want to read books. In fact I once saw an estimate that only two per cent of the literate human race read on a regular basis. That was quite a few years ago, and I certainly hope the figure has risen. But I do know people who read only the newspapers, and/or magazines. My husband, a man marvellously skilled in practical matters, reads only science and motor magazines, as well as newspapers. He has never read fiction in his life. He doesn't see the point. If he wants to relax, he goes fishing. He encourages and supports my writing, and he has, I note with an apology to him, read a couple of my short stories, but it's just not in his makeup to read books. He, however, is brilliant compared to others. In the small town in which we live, there are people who get all their information from television and gossip. They never read anything but their mail. No, not even the newspapers. No magazines, no books, nothing at all. So - we have to like reading to do it at all. And golly, I do like it!
2. An interest in the world, or an interest in any of the subjects covered by books. Fiction, non-fiction, history, geography, any human endeavour, curiosity about this human planet. How long do flies live? Why has the population of Egypt skyrocketed since the building of the Aswan Dam? Is the world really going to the dogs or has it been the same since the beginning of recorded history? Is George Bush Jr. as dumb as he's made out to be? Who won the last election in Uzbekhistan? Was there an election in Uzbekhistan? How do you spell Uzbekhistan? And so on. And of course the answer is, a lot of people don't care. Oh, they'll have heard of George Bush but they'll have accepted whatever character analysis their favourite TV current affairs has pinned on him. These people want to know only: the price of petrol, what their neighbours were up to with the lights on at 2 am, and where and at what odds their chosen football/cricket/tennis/rollerball/frog-racing contestant is competing this weekend. In a sense I can sympathise with the sports thing. I like the cricket myself, and addiction to any sport is a great escape from the mundane/unpleasant/stressful parts of everyday life. But not looking beyond one's nose is a past-time which, however nicely it suits some, I personally couldn't cope with. I want to know how the Chinese are going to handle their massive pollution problems; why the Aztecs let a few Spanish soldiers on horses destroy their civilisation; when the human race will discover it is/is not alone in the universe (a pause here to beat off the UFO believers); where precisely on a map of Europe is Luxembourg; and why is it a fact that a child with two feet can lose one shoe. But so many decent honest folk haven't a speck of interest in anything but their own immediate surroundings.
3. A retentive memory. I was forty-seven when I found out that most other people had the recall powers of a goldfish. (OK, I too saw the episode of Mythbusters in which Jamie trained a couple of finny friends to remember a simple maze. But you know what I mean.) A lady I knew from a church we had attended, a lovely person, met us again after a four-year hiatus and asked if we were there when so-and-so was there. She could not remember, after only four years. I was gob-smacked. I remembered every single member of that congregation. I remember most of the things I read, most of the important happenings of my life and an awful lot of the trivia. I'm not pointing fingers here because none of us can help either our genes, our upbringing, or the workings of our minds. I just happen to be blessed with a good long-term memory. And I recall phone numbers, pin numbers, page numbers and recipes for pan-fried nong-bats. I remember birthdays and to who I gave what at Christmas. Do not, however, ask me (a) what I intend to get at the shop without a list, (b) the important phone call my husband asked me to make a few days ago and (c) my shoe size.
Well, I do possess these three prerequisites for learning through reading. I learned accidentally because I didn't read to educate myself. I read (1) because I love stories, (2) because I'm interested in anything and everything, with the exception of the lives of celebrities. And it all added up to an education because (3) my parents' DNA happened to include the code for brain storage of most things thereby read. And (4) reading beats housework any day of the week, any moment of the day. It even insulates one against a passing distraction like that blessed ice-cream van that tootles past our house playing "Fur Elise" like a giant and demented music box just when I'm deep in Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Red Mars'.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Long Books

I so admire those writers who can hold your interest through a thousand pages or so. It's no mean feat. Most of us have to contend with sag-in-the-middle even inside two hundred pages. The secret is to have a great story, full of detail and interest.
First one I think of is Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With The Wind". Next is M.M.Kaye's "The Far Pavilions". Stephen King said the latter is a good book to take on a long sea voyage. Never fails in its imagery. And gosh, I know why she shortened the hero's name to Ash. Imagine having to type 'Englebert' or 'Humphrey' a few thousand times...
At present I'm reading "Red Mars", one of the science fiction trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. He not only has a great story full of realistic characters, he also had to render the landscape of the red planet correctly and come up with the machinery, tools etc to colonise it. Amazing. And I'm reading the series back to front, since the first one I found was "Green Mars", third of the line. Doesn't matter, each book stands alone. Now I 'm on the lookout for "Blue Mars", number two. Yes, it's on the bookfinder sites, but I have to leave it until next Christmas, when I usually give myself two weeks off writing and treat myself to reading a long book. I cannot read and write at the same time, being a slowcoach. So Red Mars, started at Christmas, sits next to my chair waiting for me to have time to dip into it for a few pages. Not the ideal way to read, but there's so much substance there I'm quite satisfied with a taste, like a chewy and delicious snack.
What else? James A Michener specialised in long 'uns. I read both "Hawaii" and "The Source" in 1970 while I breast-fed our youngest child. I've read "Centennial" as well. His secret is to have a long and interesting history and tell it in plain language. Something happening in every paragraph.
And I've read Tolstoy's "War And Peace". Honest, I have. Years ago, in my twenties. I wonder sometimes how it would seem to me now, forty years later. But hey, if I'm going to write a long and interesting book of my own, I don't think I'll have time to read old Leo again.
By the way, the picture has nothing to do with the post. It's my husband's paternal grandparents. I just thought it was nice. Be grateful I can post a photo at all. I'm technophobic.