Pity those ‘too busy’ to read

Those engaged in the great and important campaign to prevent libraries in the UK being closed down could learn a lot from the four-year tussle which has been taking place in Canada between a big-time novelist and a leading politician.

Some might say that when the Booker Prize winner Yann Martel took on the Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, the outcome was predictable – the writer would write, the politician would ignore him – but, for champions of the library system, there are reminders in what happened both of what they are up against and of why their campaign matters so much.

The battle was about reading. Back in 2007, Martel was part of a delegation of high-profile writers, artists and musicians attending his country’s House of Commons to hear a debate about arts funding. He was enraged by the bored indifference of the politicians. Harper ignored the proceedings altogether, shuffling through his papers.

Martel has tried to educate his Prime Minister. Once a fortnight since then, he has sent him a book, with an eloquent covering letter explaining why it is worth reading. The 100 freebies were a varied bunch, from Kafka to Carol Shields, from A Modest Proposal to Birthday Letters.

“I know you’re busy, Mr Harper. We’re all busy,” Martel wrote with the first book, Tolstoy’s The Death Of Ivan Ilyich. “But every person has a place next to where they sleep… In that space, at night, a book can glow.” Sending a non-fiction work by Larry McMurtry, he explained that books are “a sustained whisper”, which “nourish and sustain the soul”.

In reply to those 100 books and explanatory letters, Martel received five brief thank-you-and-now-sod-off letters from the PM’s Executive Correspondence Officer. Finally admitting defeat this month, the novelist allowed a note of frustration to enter his final letter. “Work, work, work, but what mark do we leave, what point do we make? People who are too beholden to work become like erasers: as things move forward, they leave in their wake no trace of themselves.”

The problem, as Martel and library campaigners have discovered, is that increasingly it is the erasers – work-junkies hooked on their own busyness – who are in charge. For Harper, the books sent to him might well have represented art, heart and all that, but frankly he was a busy man.

Senior politicians, self-important people caught up in the here and now, have often taken a bone-headed, even hostile, attitude towards culture. It is not just that the bigger questions about being human seem irrelevant to their daily concerns, but they are an irritating diversion. According to this dead-eyed, utilitarian view of the world, people like Martel are there to provide entertainment after the more important office-based work of the day has been done. Culture should know its place.

Today, when it is not only politicians who work, work, work, when almost everyone is skimming and skipping from one screen to another, books are under greater pressure than ever. It requires more effort to read, to switch the world off and concentrate, but the rewards are also commensurately greater. Never before have we needed so badly the moments of stillness and contemplation, the provision of thought and a wider context, which good art provides.

Books represent a vision of freedom – from circumstance, from thwarted ambition, from background, from prejudice, from unimaginative leaders. That is why politicians distrust them, why totalitarian regimes tend to lock up writers, academics and librarians.

It also why closing down libraries, by a cynical central government and stupid local councils, would be a grievous assault on citizens, particularly children. The glow of a good book offers an escape from today’s realities to tomorrow’s possibilities, through ideas, feeling, stories and hope.

Independent, Friday, 4 February 2011