A Sociological Autobiography: 9 – Reading Habits

By | August 21, 2013


For a long while I assumed that I was a laggardly reader in my early years, but I am no longer sure this is true. Certainly my parents helped teach me to read and kept me supplied with reading matter, mostly through attendance at Worthing library in the parsimonious1950s. I was familiar with Enid Blyton of course. Imposing into adolescence were Anthony Buckeridge’s escapist ‘Jennings’ books; and I somehow collected a few non-library, hard-back copies of my own. I certainly worked my way through a number of what were then seen as children’s ‘classics’, books like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. In fact, so long have Twain’s stories of wild and unbounded childhood remained in my memory that I recently re-purchased copies.

How strange this all sounds now books are so readily accessible, lately via tax-shy Amazon and on Kindle!

Jennings’ preparatory school was my refuge. Under the bed covers at 10 Colebrook Close I took out insurance against or alleviated the angst of childhood by torchlight. The pupils of Lyndbury Court were my friends and allies. This, I imagine, is the power of fiction, although it surely requires also to be topped up by non-fiction. I will try and explain what I mean by this.

Two of the books that made a lasting, frame-shifting impression on me in later adolescence were Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. I read both while working part-time in a nursery outside Rustington after re-taking my A-levels. I took from Tolstoy a sense of the uncertain, indeed precarious, placement of humans in the long, slow unfolding processes of history. His protagonists were clearly more buffeted by the Napoleonic wars than they were in charge of their individual destinies. I grasped this as if by osmosis and would have been quite unable to articulate it. So Tolstoy was a precursor to what I later understood much more plainly through the writings of historians like Braudel (particularly his massive three-volume account of the origins of modern European capitalism) and sociologists like Elias, to whose emphasis on long-term change via his figurational sociology I am still drawn.

But it was Steinbeck who had the greatest impact on me.  My life had been comfortable and comforting. Good, loving parents, an enduring band of friends, plenty of sport and intermittent successes at Worthing High School; even messing up my A-levels, occasioning re-takes in History and English, had not left scar tissue. Largely unpolitical, having paid scant attention to the TV news and, fortunately perhaps, even less to The Daily Telegraph (its unrivalled sports coverage excepted), I knew nothing of the world of the Joads. Grapes of Wrath introduced me to another far more desperate time and place and it moved and angered me. It was not just the grinding poverty being faced by abandoned people driving Westwards but their lapses into total hopelessness that affected me. This was what it was like to see no light at the end of the tunnel. It was a wake-up call.

So why am I suggesting that Tolstoy and Steinbeck no less than Buckeridge need to be leavened by non-fiction? The former drew realistically enough on historical record, and without doubt both educated me. Some colleagues from arts and humanities backgrounds, and from the social sciences too, would swear that historico-psycho-social phenomena are often best captured in fictional genres, even painting or music. I will have none of this! No fictional reconstruction of US Depression-driven subsistence can substitute for data and for attempts to theorize consonant with those data. What novelists like Tolstoy and Steinbeck can do is sensitize us and induce an empathic reaction. Weber recognized a sociological return on this via his concept of verstehen; and he bled insights. But fiction can mislead as well as lead. Statistics matter! How typical were the Joads? And how did their journey through purgatory coincide with that undertaken by real families? Fiction might – and it did for me – deliver a life-changing capsule of emotion; but was this warranted, underwritten by ‘valid’ (and ‘reliable’) evidence? Scholarship in the social as well as the physical and life-sciences matters. Of course I knew none of this aged 18-19.

More prosaically, the habit of book-reading I somehow or other acquired towards my late teens stayed with me. I have since rarely been seen in public without a book under my arm or hidden about my person or possessions, for good or ill. I have also become set in a pattern of reading. Novels are mainly read in bed, or on holidays; an autobiography or biography is usually underway, somewhere about the house; a work of history, social theory, politics or philosophy tracks me into town for those coffees between shops; and, finally, reading for work, medical sociology for example, distracts me during commutes. There is no rationale for this patterning, but I have come to find it functional and comfortable. It gets me about the domain of ideas. I – or I should say we – now have at home or in my office at UCL in excess of 10,000 volumes. I understand how bibliophile Michael Foot felt. Ah well: has it served me well? Maybe these fragments of my life will tell in the longer run. But I am getting ahead of myself again.



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