What I’ve Learned From Books


“The TV Guide to life”, said Margaret Court: pic by pedrosimoes7

Engaging with some young extremists on the internet the other day, I found myself thinking about the generation gap, and the near impossibility of passing on whatever wisdom one may have gained from having lived for 63 years, to people one-third that age.

What you learn through time is that there is, and will always be, more to learn. The tragedy is knowing you will never learn enough to fully understand. The certainty of knowing drops away, and all conclusions become provisional. This is anathema to youth.

Beware of books. I adore books. Books are amazing things. To read a book uncritically is to enter into a temporary symbiosis with the author. You are downloading and imprinting the thoughts and feelings of another person directly into your own brain.

“Careful the tale you tell

That is the spell”

[‘Into The Woods’ : Stephen Sondheim]

A well written book can partly overwrite your own personality – most Eng Lit students have met the bearded macho Hemingway lecturer, or the epigrammatical professor of Oscar Wilde.

Some – the books that have the answer to everything – are like operating systems for your mind.

“Like a TV Guide to Life. It’s all in here.”

[Margaret Court on the Bible, brilliantly combining banality and blasphemy in a single sentence]

Rulers, earthly and divine, strive to control what the rest of us read, because they want only their operating system in our heads: Jesus 20.13, Mohammad 14.34h, Marx 18.94.

But even great books are only about 10% useful information, buried in a mass of piffle, and sorting the one from the other is close to impossible. Uncritical reading downloads the lot and weights it all equally. Critical, detached, informed reading gives us a chance to extract the useful bits.

Never take a book – especially one purporting to Explain Everything – at its word. The meaning of each and every word is tied to the place and time it was written and the person who wrote it. If you don’t understand the context, you will falsify the content.

The world doesn’t change as much or as fast as you’d like to think. Under the shiny computerised interface, it’s still little more than belligerent troupes of apes fighting each other for dominance. It is our instinct to destroy everything we have rather than let anyone else have an atom of it.

Civilisation, which we love because it protects us and hate because it constrains us, is as thin as cigarette paper and twice as flammable. It lives in books.

Books are our salvation, because they remember our past. But beware books that promise utopia, if only we would do as they command. There are no utopias. Humankind is not perfectible. Books that promise these things are lies.

And beware those who believe the books. They mean well, mostly, but their good intentions lead to hell. Ignore them. Shun them. Walk away.

They hear only the virus in their heads.They will try to infect you. There is no point in talking to them, walled up in their bibles, whether those bibles were written by Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, or Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)