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This blog makes liberal use of AB's journals, letters, travel notes, and other sources.
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Tuesday, 29 August 2017
I was reading an article the other day, by a writer I respect, about the decline of reading. Essentially the author was saying that increased reliance on the use of electronic devices, coupled with an apparent decline in attention spans, results in people being less likely to read a book. He bemoaned the impact on literature and, incidemtally, on those persons who are consequently "deprived" of the intellectual (and moral?) benefit of exposure to great books. Coincidentally I noted on the same day a report that the main social media platform has noted a decline in use as more people, especially young people prefer to use alternatives which are image based. I felt angry and in some sense aggrieved; after all much of my sense of self is wrapped up in my life-long love of reading. Then I started to reflect.
So what if reading were to become obsolete? Two hundred years ago few people could read anyway, so arguably it is a short-lived phase significant only in the absence of "better" ways of communicating. Why is my instinctive response to attribute more value to reading than say watching a movie, or going to the pub, or attending a football match? Viewed objectively it seems to me that all activities ( once the basics of life are obtained) become simply ways of marking time. Probably in the early stages of human evolution a greater proportion of time was necessary to sustain life, and less spare time was available, but even then there was the necessity to mark time by sleeping, grooming, making things, reinforcing social relationships. Did any of these have more or less value? I think not. Nor do the things we do today. It is important for me to read because I enjoy it and it makes me feel better, but no value accrues.
So long as an individual's activities have no harmful effect on others it is not for me to sneer.
Thursday, 10 August 2017
There are no doubt many people, like myself, who have a complete "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" on their bookshelves and yet have never read it. It must be admitted to be just the least bit daunting! I bought Gibbon's master work in an eight volume set about twenty years ago and it has looked very handsome on the shelves ever since. I have occasionally "dipped in" but more from an outbreak of conscience than from any real intent to get to grips with the book. Not so now - I am feeling determined and have found a literary source who knows the book well and promises to guide me through it. Interestingly he regards it more in the light of a work of literature than of history which appeals to me greatly. So far I have only read the first chapter which sets the scene as it were.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a book of history written by the English historian Edward Gibbon, which traces the trajectory of Western civilization (as well as the Islamic and Mongolian conquests) from the height of the Roman Empire to the fall of Byzantium. It was published in six volumes. Volume I was published in 1776 and went through six printings. Volumes II and III were published in 1781; volumes IV, V, and VI in 1788–1789. The original volumes were published in quarto sections, a common publishing practice of the time. The work covers the history, from 98 to 1590, of the Roman Empire, the history of early Christianity and then of the Roman State Church, and the history of Europe, and discusses the decline of the Roman Empire in the East and West. Because of its stress on objectivity and heavy use of primary sources, unusual at the time, its methodology became a model for later historians. This led to Gibbon being called the first "modern historian of ancient Rome".
Gibbon's references to the subjugation of Britain to Roman rule put me in mind of Conrad's great work "The Heart of Darkness". If memory serves, near the beginning, Marlowe says something like "This also was once one of the dark places of the world", referring to the River Thames - so indeed it must have appeared to the Romans. No doubt I was put in mind of this because I am presently re-reading "Lord Jim". Conrad really can write! And Marlowe is one of the great creations in literature as far as I am concerned. I wonder how much of his own character Conrad mined, consciously or not, for his remarkable narrator?