I have very great respect and affection for Pope Benedict – this is quite different from “papolatry”, I might add – but I confess that my heart sank when I read his suggested reading for the summer holidays. His Holiness, speaking to an outside audience at Castel Gandolfo, says why not read something from the Old Testament, such as the Book of Tobit (high ideas on marriage), Esther (example of faith), Ecclesiastes (because of its “unsettling modernity”) or the Book of Job (problem of innocent people suffering).
I do get his drift. We Catholics don’t do enough spiritual reading and the Bible is the best place to start. The Pope tries to be encouraging, saying some of these Books can be read in an hour. But could I seriously sit on the beach at Barmouth, surrounded by grandchildren, with the Book of Job? I don’t say the Old Testament is a closed book to me, but it is not familiar territory. The Pope also suggests the New Testament, where I am on more familiar ground – but I always associate it with Lent, when I read it straight through.
Mind you, I would still rather follow the Pope’s advice than eg David Cameron or Ed Miliband. The former is taking a novel called Skippy Dies with him, a comic account of life at a Dublin public school. I don’t care how funny it is; at 661 pages it is far too long. He is also reading Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore, starting at the back. I sympathise with this bad reading habit as I often do it myself; I like to know if the ending is going to be happy.
Ed Miliband has to win the nerd’s prize for holiday reading: a self-help book on how to be a leader and two unreadable volumes on the global economy. He has also taken a book about Robert F Kennedy called The Last Campaign; I can tell it’s going to have an unhappy ending. He would be better off trying something from the Old Testament; it was written by his forbears, after all.
It strikes me what intellectual pygmies our political masters are these days, compared with someone like Gladstone. On holidays at Hawarden Castle, the Grand Old Man would spend his time tutoring his daughters in Greek, chopping down trees, building a library to house his vast collection of books and in his leisure intervals enjoying Dante (which he knew by heart), Virgil and Spurgeon’s sermons. Even Macmillan, with his passion for Trollope, had better taste than today’s politicians.
So what will I take with me to the beach at Barmouth? My quixotic rule is to pack what lies under my feet, ie what has been thrown under my desk to be read at a later date. A little foraging unearths the following:
1. To Kill a Mockingbird. I have to teach this as a GCSE text in the autumn; it seems to have a cult status and I enjoyed the film starring Gregory Peck.
2. Beloved by Toni Morrison. I have to read this for my next book club and the blurb tells me it is about suffering, slavery and the Deep South. I am already worrying about the ending.
3. The Trial of Marshal Ney by Harold Kurtz. My father gave me this for my 15th birthday half a century ago and I haven’t yet read it. Starting at the end, like David Cameron, I read: “Ney, now in full view of the assembled troops and a small group of bystanders, handed the Abbe a golden snuff-box and some money; the Abbe embraced him and fell on his knees in prayer. The troops had formed a square and the firing squad was in position…” Not a happy ending, then; filial duty will make me now read the whole.
4. Memory and Identity by John Paul II. I rescued this book recently from a charity shop; opening it at random, I read, “There is no freedom without truth. Freedom is an ethical category. Aristotle teaches this principally in his Nicomachean Ethics… This natural ethic was adopted in its entirety by St Thomas in his Summa Theologica.” I view this book strictly as an intellectual challenge; I am not yet sure I can rise to it.
5. Deadlock by Sean Black. I managed by mistake to click a button on my computer to say I would review this thriller, so got sent a free copy. I am not recommending it; the opening sentence goes, “Ken Prager woke to blood at the back of his throat and the barrel of a shotgun pressing hard into his right eye.” Even my mother, who has never read a book in her life, asked, “What are you reading this rubbish for?” when she accidentally picked it up in the car.
Still, I like the idea of “unsettling modernity”, as the Pope describes the Book of Ecclesiasticus. I open it gingerly at random to read, “Sin begins with a woman and thanks to her we must all die.” Pithy, powerful and true – and very unsettling. It passes the Barmouth Beach Test. Where’s my rucksack?