When I was about ten or eleven I happened to come across what turned out to be one of my favourite books of all time. It was during the long August holidays and, bored out of my skull, I’d wandered into my parents’ bedroom in search of diversion. The book, I’m almost ashamed to admit, was one of those Mills and Boon, Harlequin romance offerings that were ubiquitous in those days. I’d hesitated – I hated romantic drivel, all those curly eyelashes and brazen bosoms and the name of the book, “Ecstasy” hinted at drivel of the highest order – but extreme boredom and a desperation to read something, anything, won out.
It marked the beginning of a battle royal between my mother and myself as she sought to shelter me from the corrupting elements it contained and I determinedly, sought to be corrupted. She kept finding novel places to hide it and I kept resolutely finding it and taking it back. The thing is, my interest in the book had nothing to do with the suggestions of sex and adult intimacies – well, okay, maybe a bit – but rather, because, above everything else, it was a remarkably well-written book.
The vocabulary was fantastic, especially for a ten year old preparing to write Common Entrance. I would spend half an hour in the toilet, the book hidden between the pages of a harmless Enid Blyton collection of stories, dictionary perched precariously on the cistern, and every five minutes would pick it up and look for the meaning of some word I had never encountered before. It was from this book that I first read the word percolator, although it was only after a trip to my aunt’s house and a perusal through her gargantuan encyclopaedic dictionary that I found the meaning, as my own little Oxford Junior dictionary didn’t have it.
The author also had a good eye for detail. She was descriptive, but not in the cookie cutter way of most writers I had come across. She saw things that I myself would have noticed, very quietly drunk in the sites and sounds of the new world that was opening up before her, and, because of the infallibility of her descriptions, to me also.
But more than this, it was the story of the protagonist, who’d grown up wanting nothing more than to go to parties and get married to her childhood sweetheart. She’d lived for the dances and the newest releases on the radio. When her husband died she had had to take stock and find new direction in life. Ashamed and tired of the previous frivolity of her life, she’d gone back to school, learnt a couple of languages, got a job and went on to win one of the most prestigious awards in her field. Which is where the tall, dark and handsome stranger came in. But throughout the entire novel, her desire for self-improvement and betterment never ceases, even after she’d “got her man”. And her idea of wanting better had nothing to do with the man she was dating or the clothes she wore. Instead, it focussed on what books she read, keeping healthy and wanting, essentially, to see more and be more than the narrow future she’d dreamt of and devised for herself as a young girl growing up.
I learnt two very important lessons from Ecstasy. One, I learnt to see, to appreciate the value of quiet observation as a means of acquiring knowledge and understanding of a place. That being loud and brash and pretending to know everything was a guaranteed way to ensure one learnt nothing.
Second, I learnt that it was fine to want more, and that it didn’t matter at what age one decided that the parties and clothes and the opinions of others wasn’t enough, the important thing was what one did about it when the realisation was made.
I didn’t know it then, but I was part of a subspecies tottering on the very edge of extinction. I’ve always been a voracious acquirer of knowledge, many times, mainly for knowledge sake. I read CD jackets and street posters, the back of cereal boxes and instruction manuals. I tuck away seemingly useless information in the back of my mind for future use; which fork to use for which dish, what to do if you’re ever on fire.
Now, it seems, being curious is a curiosity in itself. Knowledge for knowledge sake, wanting more than external trappings as a means of bettering oneself, ignorance as a source of shame, all these seem ancient relics of a world where reading with a dictionary was considered normal. In the desire to get the better job, the better car, the better salary, everyone seeks to specialise, to streamline their knowledge intake to strictly that which can help them realise their goals. So essentially, we know more and more about less and less. And what this has left us with isn’t a society that esteems a person because of the depth of their knowledge, but rather, one that esteems them because of the depth of their pockets. And the tragedy of this is, most people lack the knowledge to recognise that this is a tragedy.