[an open letter to our bookshop customers, March 17th, 2004]
I met a man the other day. Not a great man perhaps, but at least a very good one, I can tell you. Cyril P. Foley played first class cricket for Cambridge (right-hand bat, right arm slow), fought in the Boer War (Jameson Raid), was a crack shot, enjoyed auto racing, fly-fishing, tennis and golf, went on a serious search for the Ark of the Covenant (the Parker Expedition), spent twenty months in the trenches of France and Salonica without leave during the Great War, liked to play the tables at Monte Carlo, and wrote a wonderful memoir about a world long vanished which is filled with incident while never telling a story about himself that is not at his own expense.
Great men seldom have time to write their memoirs, and good men usually refrain out of modesty, but thankfully there are some of those who have a talent for words and realize they were present when things happened that are worth remembering.
Lieutenant-Colonel Foley’s book is the kind of thing that makes bookselling worth the trouble. The man died in 1936, but he’s alive today for anyone with the time to read. He called his book Autumn Leaves and you can meet him there yourself if you go to the trouble of tracking a copy down. A sturdy reading copy should run you less than $30. [note: I’m out of copies myself or I wouldn’t post this right now. I don’t want anyone to think I’m speaking well of a book just to sell it.]
My own copy was once the property of Captain Horatio James Powys-Keck, Cyril Foley’s dear friend, and another legendary cricketer, and that’s a story in itself. And that too is one of the best secondary pleasures of buying used books–meeting their previous owners on the way.
The problem is that few people really do read anymore. This is a fact difficult to recognize in an environment buried in words. But the closing of one more bookshop is testimony to this. The absence of lunchtime browsers was a fact. The disappearance of evening crowds was real. The drop in book orders can be easily charted.
The failure of my shop is undoubtedly the result of my own foolishness compounded countless times a year, over the almost thirty years we managed to survive my mistakes. The blame is certainly mine for being unable to adjust to the shift of popular habit. But some fundamental things have changed in those years, and this has resulted in a loss far greater than one small business.
When, in the late Seventeenth Century, the ministers of the Scottish Church decided as a matter of national policy that each man should be able to talk directly to God, with no intermediary, it meant that every man, woman, and child must learn to read, so that they could see the word of God for themselves, and thus have something to discuss. In 1680, rock barren Scotland was one of the poorest and most illiterate nations in Europe. In one generation, literacy became common. The Scotland of Adam Smith lay directly ahead.
Naturally, a person who can read might read anything. The Scottish Enlightenment transformed the world. The American belief in education did not arise from the Puritan stocks and chains. This country was blessed one more time by the law of unintended consequences as the English depopulated Scotland to make room for sheep.
There is a common misunderstanding which has been long promoted by our schools. All cultures are equal, ergo, all cultural values are equal. It’s not true. The very fact that you may read this today is the result of a cultural value not common to world history nor even to most of the people alive today. The freedom to read this essay is unusual, even though the specific skill of reading is not. And this value is now endangered by carelessness, irresponsibility, and ignorance.
A common belief today is that almost everyone in America can read. Anecdotal evidence contradicts this. Stand on any corner and see how many cars actually stop, instead of simply slowing down. The sign does not say, ‘slow down.’ People can, perhaps, read, but they do not. They often choose not to. They cannot take the time to stop.
The good of reading is inherently in taking the time to comprehend the words and discuss them–with yourself if no one else. Taking the time to think about an issue or an event and consider it in the light of another opinion or someone else’s memory results in realization if not revelation. We are not perfect. Did you know that? Our individual memory is flawed. That’s why there are twelve people on a jury.
Reading a book is a discussion between the reader and the author. Taking the time to read is inherently an understanding of the value of discussion and argument as well as seeing the context of events and issues beyond your own narrow field of vision.
When I hear someone say they do not have the time to read, I know I am listening to someone who is dangerous. This person may drive a car. This person is spending money on things with poor judgment. This person may be a voter. Worst of all, they may be raising children to be as ignorant as themselves.
And now, because our schools have taken on the mission of parenting and child care instead of education, new generations have come along who do not read. They don’t believe it’s necessary. They get everything they want from television, cds, dvds. They drive cars. They buy stuff. They might even vote. But you cannot know what they might do under duress, because they cannot discuss their thoughts with you. They can’t explain themselves, but they might feel like expressing their wants and concerns one day. Be aware!
Cyril P. Foley took much for granted in his small work. He assumed there were things he had witnessed in his life that might be of interest to someone else, just as he assumed it was important that he spend twenty months in the trenches to protect his right to play cricket. He did not think of himself as an important man, but he deeply understood the values which made his world possible. He believed there were matters of consequence at the heart of his life which, when revealed to others, might pass on his own understanding, and his sense of value. He did not reckon that one day his words would be lost because people no longer read.
One anecdote he tells is more than comic relief: “Going along Oxford Street in a bus,” Cyril P. Foley once recalled, “I heard the conductor telling a woman the names of the shops that had formerly stood on the site of a large store. Realising that he must have been either the freeholder, the builder or a postman, and judging him unlikely to have been either the first or the second of these I said to him, ‘How long have you been a postman?’ ‘How did you know I was a postman?’ he inquired. ‘Quite simple, my dear Watson,’ said I. The man, who had evidently not read his Sherlock Holmes, nearly fell off the bus, for his name was Watson.”
This is a perceptive mind that listens, questions, and considers.
For many years I knew that the days of my own shop were numbered. When I interviewed new employees I would warn them that the end was near like a sort of literary adventist. Stores like ours had no place in the future. Wasn’t the writing on the walls? The young ones always found my warnings humorous. The older ones usually nodded with some degree of understanding. But I always assumed there was time left. I deluded myself, despite the obvious evidence, into believing that the end was not yet at hand.
Foley’s short account of his 1909 search for the Ark of the Covenant is worth every penny for the book. One moment especially–having jury-rigged a series of short ladders as they explored the key shaft beneath Jerusalem in their quest, candles in hand: “Over my head was a huge dome or vaulted roof, and running up to the right a steep passage, half filled, as far as I could see, with great boulders. Nothing would have induced me to leave that ladder, for the slope appeared to be as slippery as ice. By the dim light of the candle it looked a grim and ghastly spot, and I could not help remembering that I was probably the fourth human being who had looked on it for 1,800 years…I was just about to descend when I heard a movement away up the passage and, in my horror, something came rushing down it with the speed of thought. Before I could move, a dreadful shape hit me full on the shoulder, knocking the candle out of my hand and leaving me in opaque darkness. Being deprived of all volition by sheer terror, I mechanically beat all records down the ladder, struck the ledge at the bottom, and turning a complete somersault, fell, with what the shilling shockers of years gone by would have described as ‘a sickening splash’ into two feet of dirty water.”
Indiana Jones, eat your heart out!
Cyril Foley was made of the sterner stuff.
After duty in the trenches at Faucaucourt, Foley was rushed, on his 47th birthday, to battle the Bulgarians at Salonica. But though he spent his time in battle, he spends his pages telling us about the court martial of a soldier for drunkenness on duty, who is acquitted because he comes to the court drunk again after a lubricated lunch with his attorney and his defense plays on his appearance as only his natural demeanor, and claiming the accusation to be a mistake.
My own foils and foibles have been a bit less dramatic. Around my 47th birthday I was battling with leaking roofs, petty theft and the Internal Revenue Service.
Just as there were thousands of mistakes I made which contributed to the weight of our final difficulties, there are countless reasons for the lack of readers. Much could be made of the sad fact that many of those who do read are reading the same books. Arguments can be waged about the merit of the writing that is being published. Pleas can be heard for better quality in the making of books. Criticism would be directed at the libraries who have forgotten their mission as they replace books with audio-visual materials. One small essay is insufficient space for the task.
This then is just a note in passing. I regret my failure most because I will no longer be able to offer the work of authors like Cyril P. Foley to the hands and minds of the few who still wish to read. I would battle a hundred leaking roofs for that honor. I will miss the bookseller’s singular daily pleasure of introducing a customer to someone they should know.