Pages on paper

I used to spend time in book stores; Waterstones, WHS et al, but especially in antiquarian or 'used' book stores. All the books that have influenced my life have surfaced for me is such places through random browsing: Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring', Ernest Hemingway's 'For Whom the Bell Tolls', Logan Pearsall-Smith's 'On Reading Shakespeare', Dixon's 'Gairloch', etcetera, etcetera. 

These days of course I have my Kindle Fire. I find it very useful and certainly time saving, but I confess to not holding it in any particular affection. Kindle (and its best friend Amazon) sets out to save me the bother of book browsing with its useless pleasures of  tactile self-discovery. It does its level best to force-feed me with my reading material. To this end whole new libraries of 'how to electronically market books' have evolved. Book promotion has indeed become a science without too much regard for that old fashioned truth without which science is nothing but fraud. The fact remains that, for me at least, Kindle Fire to that old book shop in Winchester is as having sex to making love. Imitation and without much in the way of meaning.

The other day a friend lent me a book that will join my 'most influencing' list, a quite grubby little paperback called 'Once There Was A War'. It was first published in 1959. The book consists of John Steinbeck's collected WW2 despatches (from 1943) preceded by, quite possibly, the finest essay I have read on war in general and the role of the war correspondent, during that war, in particular. The despatches take the form not of factual reportage but of short stories complete with titles - true stories of minor events set around and sometimes inside the fringes of the actions in which Steinbeck's fellow American servicemen were involved. These despatches are completely as written, even down to an absence of precise time and place (because of censorship) and some self-admitted imperfections of writing (because of the heat of the moment, the fire of the action).

Even allowing for the severe restrictions imposed by the War Machine, when you read these stories today you gain a much greater understanding of what this human conflict thing is all about, especially the enforced hypocracy of its reportage, especially the notions that all private soldiers are brave and honest and leave at home the natural preoccupation of boys with girls and that all general officers are wise and fearless souls who would much rather be in the thick of the blood and bullets than hog-tied down behind some pestilential desk well behind the lines. As for the moralistic heroes on the Home Front! As for the politicians whose grave mistakes give rise to the madness in the first place! ...

This is a book you do not just read; it is a book you experience. One that, having finished it you want to read over again, most especially the author's introduction.

I shall now return my copy and try to buy one of my own. On Amazon of course: a hardback if one is available.


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