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Updated: January 12, 2013 18:04 IST

Great statesmen, great lovers of books

RAVI MENON
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Indeed it is extremely interesting to contemplate the idea that great statesmen were also great lovers of books and incidentally authors
Indeed it is extremely interesting to contemplate the idea that great statesmen were also great lovers of books and incidentally authors

Outstanding leaders are born of enlightened thinking brought about by reading from a young age.

Most children cry on their first day of school. I did not. I was put in a room full of children my age; all of them wailing. A few minutes of this and, I suppose, I too would have wept. But, for some reason, I looked up at the walls. My anxiety was gone: I saw two familiar figures. Little Boy Blue and Little Miss Muffet; nursery rhymes come to life. I was transported back to my picture books and quiet afternoons under the shade of a guava tree. The pictures were, to my eyes, beautifully rendered. It was the equivalent of meeting a familiar person when you are lost in a foreign land.

I don’t think any child in this age of electronic distractions can understand the absolute bliss of losing oneself in a book. To children of our age, a book was a thing of beauty and magic. Every sense, except the sense of taste, was satisfied. From the smell of the binding, to the sound of the crinkle of the spine, to the feel of the pages and, most of all, the visual feast. Blessed with parents who encouraged reading and a house full of books and magazines, I read everything I could. I devoured books, magazines, newspapers (10 pages; 8 paise).

One summer was particularly memorable. On a visit to my grandfather’s house, I located several glass cabinets full of copies of Readers Digest in a locked room on the second floor. The weather and temperature in Kerala imparted a special smell to those magazines. The heat, the golden light coming through the windows, the smell of mangoes and the silence broken only by the tick-tock of a clock on the ground floor: the summer of 62 is a summer never to be forgotten. My passion for reading grew stronger with every passing day. Very soon I agreed with Logan Pearsall Smith, “They say life’s the thing, but I prefer reading.”

For me, a journey is unthinkable without a book. Plane journeys are looked forward to with particular joy because of the enforced waiting time. I usually calculate the time taken for the journey and equip myself with a book of suitable size. I do the same on Sundays and other holidays.

I have often regretted the fact that I did not have enough time to read. I stopped feeling sorry for myself when, recently, I read Roy Jenkin’s outstanding biography of William Ewart Gladstone. One sentence leapt out of the page. “It is estimated that he read 20,000 books in his lifetime.” My first thought was “How did he do it?” Of course he lived to a ripe old age: 89 years. But he didn’t spend his life reading. He had a well-deserved reputation as a classical scholar, writer and author. He participated in all major religious debates and was an indefatigable traveller. He was an outstanding orator. He served 63 years in the House of Commons and 27 years in the Cabinet. And on four separate occasions he was invited by his sovereign to form a government as Prime Minister of England. History has recorded that he is the statesman who epitomised the Victorian era of British supremacy. Of course, he is not the only scholar, writer and author among Britain’s Prime Ministers.

Indeed it is extremely interesting to contemplate the idea that great statesmen were also great lovers of books and incidentally authors. On the other side of the Atlantic, the founding fathers had a large number of authors among them. As the British Empire disintegrated under the pressure of colonies seeking independence, almost every one of them was headed by someone who was a passionate reader and author — from the states of the African continent to Australia and, of course, closer home with Gandhi, Nehru, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, C. Rajagopalachari and others.

Perhaps there is a moral there somewhere. Outstanding leaders who leave their mark on their times are born of enlightened thinking and action. And what activity is better suited to enlighten and elevate than hours spent reading? Perhaps the world would be a better place today if many of our leaders had spent more time reading.

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