A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Irony And Pity

I think my love of the written word must date from way back. Even when very young I remember looking forward to receiving, on birthdays and in my Christmas pillowcase, books above all: A. A. Milne, Beatrix Potter, The Brothers Grimm, Kenneth Grahame, Captain W. E. Johns, Arthur Ransome, J. M. Barrie, the Eagle annual. Strangely enough I never appreciated Lewis Carroll until I was much older. One book given to me by a great-uncle (which was battered then and is even more battered now) was an old copy of Hendrik van Loon's The Story Of Mankind. This book still has a special, even totemic, significance for me, though I couldn't explain exactly why. Perhaps it's something to do with its age, its yellowing, thick, rough-cut paper, its endearing, personal style of explaining 500,000 years of human history, its artless illustrations.

Hendrik Willem van Loon (1882-1944) was a Dutch-American historian and journalist. He reported on the 1905 Russian Revolution, and later became professor of history at Cornell University. He was a prolific writer of books, but his children's history book, The Story Of Mankind, is perhaps the best known. Since his death there have been many editions as the work has been constantly updated - originally by his son, then afterwards by other historians. It was first published in the US in 1921, and won the first John Newbery medal the following year. My own copy of this venerable book is the first British edition, published by George G. Harrap in September 1922.

The book begins like this. For some reason I've never been able to get these four simple but powerful sentences out of my mind since first reading them:

High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by.

Beginnings (and endings and titles) of books are so important. The success or failure of a book can depend upon them - and I don't mean by this simply some clever marketing trick. Beginnings and endings and titles have a magical power either to draw you in or to exclude you for ever.

Talking of endings, I can't recall ever reading the ending of The Story Of Mankind. So I've just turned to it, and here it is:

'The more I think of the problems of our lives, the more I am persuaded that we ought to choose Irony and Pity for our assessors and judges as the ancient Egyptians called upon the Goddess Isis and the Goddess Nephtys on behalf of their dead. Irony and Pity are both of good counsel; the first with her smiles makes life agreeable; the other sanctifies it with her tears. The Irony which I invoke is no cruel Deity. She mocks neither love not beauty. She is gentle and kindly disposed. Her mirth disarms and it is she who teaches us to laugh at rogues and fools, whom but for her we might be so weak as to despise and hate.' And with these wise words of a very great Frenchman I bid you farewell.

Van Loon is quoting Anatole France here. All I can say is amen to the wisdom of it.

Anatole France also once wrote: I prefer the folly of enthusiasm to the indifference of wisdom. I say amen to that too.


dominic rivron said...

You remind me of a book I had as a child called The Miracle of Life.It came out in 1941. It's full of useful information. Did you know, for instance, that the human body contains enough lime to whitewash a chicken coop and enough iron to make a two-inch nail? If you google the title along with the name of the editor, Harold Wheeler, you can see some of the book's magnificent (if eccentric) illustrations.

You mention Arthur Ransome: he was a great influence on me, too. I've just found an old Ransom-style map I drew as a child between the pages of The Miracle. There you go. He was a really interesting chap. Was he a Bolshevik sympathiser or British agent? I like to think the former, and that with the accession of Stalin he realised he'd be wise to keep his head down and write books about sailing – if only for the sake of his wife's family, still in the USSR.

The Solitary Walker said...

I'm certain I had the same book, Dominic. I've just spent ages looking for it but I think I must have let it go in one of my periodic book purges.