2013 was a good year for reading. My penchant is for non-fiction but the blokes of the Blokes’ Book Club kept me in the novels game. Who could do better than Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper; JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy; and Tim Winton’s Eyrie.
And, for non-fiction, I finally read AJ Brown’s biography of Michael Kirby: Michael Kirby Paradox and Principles and was blown away by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Summer holidays constitute a time when an illusory impression of endless days at the beach coincides with the topping up of my equally infinite pile of books to be read. To what extent will the reality match the illusion of tackling that pile?
Even as I have kept working on the non-holidays over the break, the signs are, at this stage, optimistic.
My younger brother, Laurie, and I always exchange books at Christmas. Since they compete with other books I receive, Laurie’s gifts to me do not always get read.
Perhaps, for this reason, Laurie’s gift to me of Christmas 2013 was John Gray’s The Silence of the Animals. The Silence is a little book weighing in at just 210 pages. Gray, on the other hand, is a heavyweight, having held down Chairs in History and related topics at Oxford, Harvard, Yale and the London School of Economics.
In reward for Laurie’s thoughtfulness, I commenced reading The Silence on Boxing Day and finished it, two days later.
The Silence excels as a book list. Gray opens with an extract from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon describing a group of tree living apes looking with puzzlement upon their Neanderthal neighbours eating raw meat and killing other animals as well as each other. He switches to the post hanging scene in Joseph Conrad’s An Outpost of Progress. (The Silence is not meant to be a joyful book.) Gray concludes with a passage from the Louis MacNiece poem, Mutations.
Gray draws his examples, good and bad, and makes his points from other people’s writing. As a result, along the way, he manages to provide a guide to western literature including a new understanding of the writing of both Freud (tick of approval) and Jung (a cross). Of all the authors mentioned by the Gray (both known to me and completely unheard of), I am most keen to dip into the travel writing of Patrick Leigh Fermor, bon vivant, war hero and absolute Renaissance man.
In The Silence, Gray is keen to look critically upon all myths. He saves his greatest disdain for the myth of progress: the view that, through increasing knowledge or self-knowledge, humanity is improving ethically, socially, materially.
The myth is found in religious and humanist traditions. The myths of science are different to the myths of religion but science, nonetheless, has its myths. History, indubitably, evidences both individuals and communities making the same mistakes and committing the same crimes upon one another, over and over. The downside results of the Arab Spring are tendered as but the latest example.
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