Talking books

I love books above all else, much more than clothes, shoes and handbags. And when we moved to Asia, most of the crates that we shipped over contained books. They were like old friends and much-loved family members.

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Yet curiously, my youngest child was a late reader. We always suspect it was because she so enjoyed being read to every night that she decided not to make the effort to learn to read for herself. She once commented (joking or not, we don’t know), “I could read a long time ago, I just pretended I didn’t know how.”

In my early career, when I had to work long hours, I would count my happy days as the nights that I was able to be home to read my children their bedtime stories. Those were the magical moments of our lives, the hour after bath time, just before bed.

My Ma used to read to us too.

Years ago, when I was in my early forties, someone read me a book for the first time in my adult life. It was a book written in Italian, not published, about wartime Italy. I still could not get the story out of my mind, any more than I could get what my reader read to me. It moved me so deeply that I began writing the precursor of Catching Infinity, Ten Most Beautiful Equations in the World, for the person who read to me.

Indeed, reading out loud a.k.a storytelling is our primal behaviour. It also connects to the emotional centres of our brain, so say neurologists. I often read to my partner in the evening what I had written during the day and I think we both get a lot out of it. I think he gets to know what goes on in my mind and my day; it brings us closer. It certainly gave me a lot, as I subconsciously write for him, with each sentence I write, I look forward to reading it back to him in the evening, even if it is on Skype.

The New Yorker published a deep article on The Pleasures of Being Read To. The link is here.

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Excerpt from Chapter 3, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night:

“I watched you on television once, many years ago,” she continued, looking directly into his eyes. PW felt his knees weakening, and mentally thanked God that he was sitting down, or those knees of his would have surely buckled. “Your accent, I could not get it out of my head from that moment onwards. The way you sounded made the whole Relativity, multiple universes and time travel scenario more believable, more real, and at the same time, more magical. You brought these two seemingly irreconcilable realms – reality and magic –together, like how you are trying to unify the two final contradicting worldviews of our era. Einstein’s Relativity and Quantum Field Theory. How can the right hand ever fit into the left? We could never get it, not on 2D. Before you, many have tried. It’s your voice that draws people to your story, Professor, me included. There’s something about your voice. I hear it in the words you write, and something in me blooms.”

He spoke with many tongues, but his power came, not from his words or his accent, but from his mystical ability to speak directly to the subconscious mind. The subconscious occupies a larger part of the brain than the conscious, hence PW’s power over the thinking mind.

“For us Boers, the Afrikaans language symbolises more than a sequence of words. We have a special word for language. We call it taal. It’s about our identity, our history, our kultuur. It’s our gemeenskap.”

He smiled, light flickering in his eyes. “Also, storytelling is part of our human psyche, isn’t it? Our ancestors have been doing it for millions of years, sitting round the fire telling stories about mammoths and dinosaurs that they hunted. The desire to tell stories and the desire to connect with stories are part of us all. It is our evolution.”

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Invisible Music

He listened more, pressing his ear against the cold stone of the square tower of Magdalen College. More music came to him, disembodied, but real nonetheless. Like fire, music is critical to our survival. It predates language and is more than a just frivolity that we often carelessly assign it to. Early Paleolithic humans invested a lot of effort into making music, probably because music touches us all at a very deep level. There is a possibility that music predates bipedal walking, and why not? To communicate, like to procreate, is a fundamental driver of life.

But what is music?

It is a vibration of molecules following a certain, beautiful, established pattern and this sequence of energised molecules works with neurotransmitters, opening up cortical circuitry in the brain, opening up our minds like a chemical flower blooming in its osteoblast cage.

From its source, music travels out spherically, directionless, losing energy along the way. Thus, music gets fainter the further away it gets from its source, until the energy dissipates to the extent that the molecules no longer hum to the beat. But in Alice’s world, these molecules reach him with their message across space and time, and the message that it carried was the beauty of the Magdalen College Choir singing Mount Up, My Soul. Mount Up, My Soul was a little known song, written by Joseph Straphan in 1834 that PW used to play on the piano in the veld to the tempo of crickets singing. How did she know?

“I loved you since forever, PW.”