Saturday, April 14, 2007


It would have been easy to immediately write something on him. I tried my damnedest not to till there was something to say. There have been any number of well-wrought essays and encomiums from all over the word. What I wanted to say just arrived and I am writing it straight down here without preplanning.

I didn't read Slaughterhouse-Five till I was in my 30s, but can picture clearly a day, when I was about 17, while staying with a friend from boarding school in one of my stop-overs between flights to my parents in North Africa, watching him reading the book while sitting on settee of their lounge. I can even see the weather outside behind him, in my minds eye - a sunny, late June day in the suburbs of London. Tree lined street in Ealing.

At the time, having opted for science at A Level, not reading novels as he was as part of his English A Level course, I missed out on all this stuff. And the point is? I recognised even as I watched him all those years ago with the book, how much I was missing in not reading the latest books. Standing there watching him engrossed in Slaughterhouse-Five, I knew I should be reading it: I had read about in the newspapers in the school library. The same literary envy overcame me when I observed someone reading Catch-22 around the same time.

It should have been relatively straightforward to read them myself and so be au courrant as well. But the in-little-boxes education system, with too early specialisation - or was it just my mindset at the time? - prevented me from doing so. I was doing science not Eng. Lit. so didn't read lit. (!) What was to stop me reading these books in the holidays? Why should a science student not read novels.

The thing is the sort of novels I read up to the age of 16 were mostly of the Neville Shute category.....anyone who saw what I read then who could see what books I have read since then might be surprised and impressed.

added later:

The point I was going to make but forgot was the business of there being a perfect time to read a book. I wonder if reading Slaughterhouse-Five at 17 would have been the right time. I had certainly been interested in modern history from quite early and did well academically up to 16 in history. So there would have been the context. But had I really read enough, and seen enough film footage, about the horrors of war at that age for the book's impact to be optimal? I think not. But reading it perhaps 20 years later, my mind had been formed by much more reading of all sorts.

The immediate objection would be that the novel itself would adequately do the job without the wider knowledge. This is rarely so - fiction or non-fiction - because part of the joy of reading a book or watching a film (noticing the film playing in the background in a scene in Lost in Interpretation and knowing it was La Dolce Vita)
makes for a greater understanding of the film you are watching.


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