What we learn from books

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I went to buy my daughters’ text books for school today - what a pocket painful experience.

But I always love this time of year when I get to wander around an academic book store, pretend to look seriously for a particular title, but just revel in the discovery of what scholars and students around the country, will be learning about this year.

Eventually I give in and ask for help to uncover the actual books I need and be sure to get the correct grade, version and edition.

Something today must have sparked a memory, because I keep going back to a book I read in primary school. I can’t remember what it was called, or the author or any real detail but then I did attend 6 different primary schools so it is easy to mix things up in that period of my life.

But this was a story about a tribal leader in the untamed forest of somewhere. In the course of the story he is challenged in various ways, experiences sorrows and joys and his character develops. Even though there is reason to be angry with him, the reader, even a young child, eventually learns that there is more than one story and many extenuating circumstances and I in particular, felt much affection for him.

In the course of this story, he and his tribe are investigated by some Western academics or journalists. They don’t have a prominent part in this story, but the scene that has left me feel appalled even after many decades, was the one where the two Western characters are talking about the protagonist and saying how interesting he is. The one says that in his new book, he will probably dedicate a chapter to him, or at least a full page.

I remember so clearly being hit by that realisation. We were studying this character over a few weeks in class, taking ages to read the entire book, and some upstart who just popped into the character’s life, thought he could sum him up in ‘at least a full page’.

The serious concern that I might one day behave like that Western journalist, summing up people in one page who deserve a full book, that has stayed with me all my life.

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