Books Are What Make Us Civilised

In America, Tom Paine's writings spurred the revolution for independence. Or closer to our own time; consider how the Nazis burnt books of which that they were scared. It's easy to see that books have power if they are being fought over because of the ideas they contain.

I'm a reasonably happy writer these days (well, as happy as writers ever get) because I have come to An Understanding. In order to explain that understanding, here's a long-winded analogy:

If I were a football team, I'd be Wigan Athletic. Not Manchester United, or Arsenal, but you'd have heard of me. If I was an actor, I'd have been in several movies you'd seen. If I was a musician, I'd be a household name, and I mean in every household, not just in a sub-fraction of the already small fraction of people in this country who actually buy books regularly. But I'm not, I'm a writer, and despite the fact that I've won a few awards and sold over 750,000 books in the UK, I am as invisible as the air we breathe. As it happens, I'm actually quite happy about that, and I apologise if those facts sounded boastful; I offer that I am trying to be objective about the matter, and just use my own case to illustrate that while those of us who live with books, who have worked with books our entire lives, who cannot imagine a world without them, might think books are the bee's knee joints; the rest of the world could not care less.

I used to find that quite depressing; how few people value books, and what they can do, and once again if you think that statement sounds crazy, I urge you to step outside of the book world, if you're part of it. (By which I simply mean someone who reads regularly.) Yes, we think that books are indispensible, but what about the greater world? As further evidence, I offer my experience of what happens when someone asks you what you do. You're at a dinner party (nothing to do with books). You're on a plane. You're having your teeth drilled. Someone asks you what you do.

'I'm a writer.'

Perhaps you think it sounds cool to say it. And one time in ten, it does indeed, as whoever asked the question reacts with delight/envy/respect/surprise. The other nine times people look at you as if 've just told them your favourite hobby involves the peeling of frogs, and then sidle away as fast as they can.

Hang on a minute, you say. Hang on. Wasn't there that recent YouGov poll that showed that the most desired profession in the UK is that of being an author? Well, for one thing, that wasn't the question posed. The poll by the private marketing company actually stated: "Generally speaking, please say whether you would or would not like to do each of the following for a living" and applied it to a mere 31 professions, not even including home maker, or scientist, nurse, or engineer of any kind for example. In fact the list reads rather like a list of the jobs you thought about when you were six: former, firefighter, Formula One driver, astronaut (I'm not kidding). But given that of this list made by 'not-opting-out' being an author ranked top, surely that shows some respect among the general populace for this strange occupation? Well, for one thing, I wonder who they polled. And for another thing, maybe it just shows that many people have a very misleading idea about what it's like to be an author. As this article (amongst others) accurately demonstrates, the most significant thing being that the money is not what people assume it is: £11,000 a year being the average author's yearly salary in 2013.

Ten or more years ago I remember a conversation I had with Danuta Kean on the subject. Her argument was that while it's perhaps true that books are not as widely discussed as music or film, the influence of books is much wider. I was doubtful at the time, but now I happily concede that she was right, because I believe it's indisputable that books are what made us civilised.

There was perhaps a time when it was easier to see how important books are. In my imagination, this is a golden age, when books weren't ranked in faked best-seller charts in supermarkets, the positions bought by publishers. When they weren't dominated by the need for celebrity endorsement. When they weren't viewed as expensive, or if maybe it's more accurate to say that they were, but that their value was understood.

Think about the era of 18th century revolution, when a hastily printed pamphlet could spark unrest. In America, Tom Paine's writings spurred the revolution for independence. Or closer to our own time; consider how the Nazis burnt books of which that they were scared. It's easy to see that books have power if they are being fought over because of the ideas they contain. And words still are fought over; in recent times we only need think of the story of Malala Yousafzai, or the Charlie Hebdo attacks, to understand how powerful ideas can be, and the written word is often the way these ideas are disseminated.

From the very first, the ideas found in such writings were what created the world about us. I had an argument with a rather severe journalist a few years ago, about what was important in life. Engineering, science, medicine, politics; these were his triumphs of human endeavour. I clumsily tried to say that these indisputably important things are what enable us to survive; what frees us to truly live is culture; books, music, art. And even beyond that, I would argue that even such fundamental things as medicine are duty bound to acknowledge the debt of their existence to the written word. To prove this, imagine a world for a moment without books, without reading and writing. Taken to its absolute most basic level; writing is what enabled us to pass on knowledge from one person to another, even though separated by space, or time, or both. True writing emerged, it's believed, around 5-6000 years ago, and it's no coincidence that the first great civilisations emerge around the same time. The building of pyramids is probably inconceivable without the use of the written word.

Recent polls show that the percentage of people who read at least one book in the year (2013) in the UK and the US is pretty much the same: roughly 75%. Is that a good figure, or a bad figure? That means 25% haven't read a single thing.

And note that these polls only asked for the participants to have read one book. Is that a reader, or not? I don't know what I think about these numbers, but I do know this: as Morrissey said, there's more to life than books, you know, but not much more. Books are what made us civilised? No, the truth is a little bit better than that; books are what made civilisation.

Marcus Sedgwick is a World Book Day 2015 £1-book author. Killing the Dead (Orion), is available for free with a World Book Day National Book Token.


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