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There’s nothing like a good book

26 September 2014

David Winter, a member of the judging panel, on the joy of reading


I LIKE books. I like the feel of them, the smell of them, and the contents of them. Any such enthusiasm probably stems from a love of words. That love is often born in infancy. Our first words evoke such pleasure and admiration that thereafter they seem to acquire a mystic significance.

Living with words (as we all do) sets us up eventually for the world of books, because here we have distilled words, choice words - words used like a painter's brush, or a storyteller's jabbing finger.

I suppose it does not really matter if the "book" comes in paper and binding, or electronically (although give me a book to hold any time). What counts is its mental impact.

A book, any book, is there to tell me something, to quicken my imagination, to widen my understanding of other people and their circumstances. The writer guides me into unexpected pastures, new adventures, paths I've never walked before.

AS A child, I remember reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, that Victorian tale of black men and women living and working on the slave plantations of America. I was not reading it as a piece of political or social propaganda, but as a story, with characters who were to me lovable, but living in a situation that was often sad and cruel.

Uncle Tom was just the sort of uncle anyone would want, and I don't remember ever thinking that his racial origins mattered one jot. When I had read it, I was relieved to discover that slavery had been abolished 100 years earlier.

For me, that is a perfect example of a life-changing book. Uncle Tom's Cabin, now dismissed as rather sentimental and patronising, was (after the Bible) the best-selling book, in English, of the 19th century. It probably did more to change white people's feelings about black people in the US, and their plight, than any number of sermons, or even Acts of Parliament.

The key word there is "feelings". And that is the power of the printed word: a good book engages not just our intellect, but our emotions. It may set out to convince, but, if it is to succeed, it must also touch our hearts. Sometimes, to our surprise, it is the simplest book and the apparently artless story that changes the world.

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