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09 December 2007


Benjamin Rosenbaum

There's certainly a lot that's moving in the speech. But there's something about the totality of it that irritates me, too.

I am very willing to root for the mother in line at the Indian shop reading Anna Karenina. I am very, very willing for Doris Lessing to bring books to her. I am very willing to be reminded that food for the soul is every bit as vital a thing to bring somewhere it is lacking as rice or maize. To Lessing the philanthropist I say: sign me up.

Of Lessing the pundit of the West's historical crisis, however, I am more cautious.

There seems to me to be something dishonest or patronizing about the way the tale is told. In fact in the posh school there are folks whose salvation is reading, who, if somehow their privileges magically disappeared and they were forced to walk for days for books, would do just that. In the village of the Tolstoy-fan mother there are folks who are not all that bothered about books and would just as soon watch soccer. This variance of taste is all fine and just as it should be, people being different, nor does it for one moment excuse the gulf of privilege between North and South; but I am suspicious of what looks like Lessing's attempt to distract us from it.

It is not necessary that people without access to resources be more noble or better than people with access to resources in order to deserve their fair share. Zimbabwe needs books even if the proportion of bookworms -- or potential bookworms -- to jocks is just the same as it is in Britain, even if the laziness of Britons with regard to literature is simply a function of having a need met, and the zeal of Zimbabweans that of having a need denied.

I guess it is not the "Zimbabwe needs books" half of the argument that bothers me, it is the "kids today don't read the classics any more, they are out using that in-terr-net thingie" half. Also the somewhat dodgy role of storytelling in her speech. She is really a partisan of a particular set of storytelling protocols -- the printing press ones as opposed to the campfire ones or the internet ones -- and I'd be interested to hear her argument there; but instead she co-opts oral storytelling into a comfortable metaphor for print storytelling, and dismisses internet storytelling as a pale and superficial imitation of it; one is tempted to conclude that she probably does not know very much about either.

Call me Scrooge McScrooge! :-)

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Susan Marie Groppi

  • Susan Marie Groppi is a historian and an editor, currently living in Berkeley, California.


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