How books opened the world to Diana Athill

Writer and editor Diana Athill had a sheltered upbringing but books introduced her to a wider world. She reflects on the lessons learned from a lifetime's reading

Eighty-seven years of living must have taught me something. Yes. But how little! My life started in benign surroundings that afforded a narrow view of the world: hardship and cruelty, for instance, existed only in books, and then only to be overcome or escaped from. But at least there were books. Had there not been - and many households were bookless, or almost so - what would I ever have learned?

My first lessons, coming like everyone's from my immediate family, would have taught me that God was kind and approved of plain living and decent behaviour. I would also have learned how to ride a horse, play tennis, dance, and not to lie unless I absolutely had to. Later, I would have learned how to live with a husband, bring up children, run a house, and probably, since I enjoy using my hands, how to garden and to sew, and almost certainly how to paint: all my aunts did, and a great-grandfather was really good at it. If my husband and I continued to like each other, I would have learned a good deal about whatever job he did, and I would have picked up a fair amount about the world in general as reflected in the Times. In those days that was enough for many young women of my kind, and the only reason why it was not to be enough for me was books.

That includes books read by the rest of my family, not just those I read myself. The painting great-grandfather was master of an Oxford college, so his descendants all read a lot, thus making excursions into the past, into foreign countries, and into other kinds of life led by other kinds of people, and they liked to educate their young. Your reading did not necessarily tempt you far from your own ground, but you were given the chance to see that leaving it was possible. My own first books worked purely as fun, loved because they made me laugh (Doctor Doolittle was a great favourite) or because they fuelled romantic daydreams (fairy stories, or a bit later the novels of Georgette Heyer). Apart from a powerful shot of straight information gained when I was 11 and chanced upon a little instruction manual by Marie Stopes, tucked away in a dark corner, which put a thrilling end to ignorance about the mechanics of sex, books taught me little about real life before I reached my teens.

After that funniness continued to be important - I was an avid fan of PG Wodehouse. But exploration began, and has continued ever since: of the past through Shakespeare, Swift, Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Thackeray; of other countries through Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, Flaubert, Maupassant, Proust. Naipaul illuminated the Caribbean, Atwood Canada, Keane Ireland, Dalrymple India; Willa Cather, John Updike, Philip Roth the US. And then there are the letters and diaries: nothing beats Byron's letters; and Boswell in his diaries, so hungrily eager to become good, only to fail and fail again, but how could anyone be considered a failure who so wonderfully preserved such a vast chunk of life? It is not just the learning of facts: it is the breathing of atmospheres, the sharing of experiences, the broadening of one's view of what is possible, of how life works. Let others enjoy fantasy, for me what matters is how it really was, and is. Through Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead I was able to feel what it was like to be a soldier manhandling a gun out of a swamp while under bombardment; through Nabokov's Lolita I knew the desire that can overpower a middle-aged man at the sight of a little girl. And, above all, there is that sense of continuity, of how "Now" has grown out of "Then", and of the infinitely complex network of connections between human beings, whether near or far.

Once learning has been given a push by books, it goes on within the reader's own experience step by little shuffling step. By the time I reached Oxford in 1936 I had taken on the idea that I ought not to dislike or despise foreigners, but had not reached the point of acting on it. At my school there had been only two "foreigners", one French, one Jewish. If they had been pretty and confident, I think they would have been accepted and admired for their exotic charm, but both were plain and shy. We had been told that we must welcome the French girl kindly, so I knew I was doing wrong when, having given her a stony look, I decided she was odd and unattractive and deliberately ignored her: I can still recall the sensation of my own stoniness as I suppressed twinges of guilt. About the Jewish girl our headmistress had sensibly made no preparatory remarks, but that failed to make us see her as just another new girl. I don't remember any discussions of her Jewishness, and certainly no one was positively unkind to her, but a barely tolerated foreign body was what she remained. I have forgotten the appearance of most of my schoolfriends, but the faces of those two girls are still with me. That cold, irrational dislike must have been focused on them with considerable intensity, to engrave them on my memory like that.

Yet guilt had been felt, a small step had been taken. During my first term at Oxford, at a party where people were dancing and there was a very black African among the men, I knew that if he asked me to dance I must accept with good grace. I was relieved that he didn't ask me, but the seed of how I ought to behave had germinated to the point at which I would have acted on it; and when the next day my best friend said that never, never would she be able to touch a black person, I felt genuinely shocked. As for Jewishness, by the time I left Oxford I was noticing it with no more interest than I noticed whether someone had blue eyes or brown. Some years after I was launched into working life, it was a Jewish friend, Mordecai Richler, who advanced my education several quick steps by taking me to a party where nearly everyone was black after which, in a taxi, a black man gave me a casual kiss. That kiss was important because it turned out to be ordinary, certainly not disagreeable but not wildly exciting, just another kiss. I was proud of it, however. It made me feel smugly superior to girls who had not been kissed by a black man. And from there it was only a few more steps - meetings with various people over lunch, in bars, across my desk at the publisher's office where I worked - before I relaxed and began to be able to like or not like black people on their individual merits in the same way as I liked or disliked white people. Not until several years later, when the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord and I got together (where we still are), did I start to be more ready to like blacks than I was to like whites: a flip to the other side of the irrational-prejudice coin which should no doubt be deplored.

I knew during the 1930s that anti-semitism continued to exist, but I didn't take it very seriously, seeing it (I think) as an exceptionally horrid but old-fashioned kind of snobbery which, since I myself had grown away from it, was probably on the way out. And when we began to learn what the Nazis were doing to the Jews, the very extremeness of that vileness served to distance it. Things that happen in another country ... in another city ... even round the corner in another street: it's astounding how little most of us are affected by them.

When, at the end of the second world war, the truth about what had been done at Belsen appeared in our cinemas, for a short time a great many people whose lives that truth had not touched, saw it, and it jolted their whole being. Those images left us in no doubt as to what had been done, and stunned by the question, how? How could any humans have done that to other humans? Words needed to be added to the images. And eventually it was words in one book among the many which have borne witness to the Holocaust - a book published by the firm in which I worked - that brought its nature home to me.

This was Gitta Sereny's Into That Darkness, her examination of the life and personality of Franz Stangl, who was commandant of the extermination camp, Treblinka. In Treblinka alone the official German estimate of people gassed is 900,000: a figure questioned by a Polish railway worker who was a member of the underground resistance and therefore made it his job to record what was going on. "I stood there in that station day after day and counted the figures chalked on each truck. I have added them up over and over and over. The number of people killed in Treblinka was 1,200,000, and there is no doubt about it whatever."

Sereny's book, built on a mass of interviews, consists largely of such voices: those of witnesses, and those of people engaged in the extermination process, chiefly of Stangl himself. It is this that makes it different from the majority of Holocaust reports, which are usually by survivors. It is this which brings one up with excruciating directness against the question: how did mostly perfectly ordinary men become able to do these things? How did mostly perfectly ordinary men become able to look at human beings and not see them as such? Because that's what they did. And that - and this is the worst of the horror - came easily, and could come easily to everyone.

Look at genocide wherever it occurs. Look at the slave trade. Look at the rapacities of empire accumulation, at Muslim slaying of innocents, at our slaying of innocents. Look at the BNP. Look, for that matter, at children and what they can do to other children simply for being a bit different. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost anyone can do it.

Many of the lessons I have accumulated from books seem to me to have widened and deepened my love of life, but this one ... What is the good of learning something like that if you don't do anything about it?

That sort of question has always been asked. It has been answered in many ways, ranging from communing with God while perched on a pillar in the wilderness, to setting up as ruler of vast populations with rods of iron, none of which has managed to make human beings measure up consistently to what most of them would agree was the best in themselves.

It is certainly not answered by contemplating day after day the horrors going on in the world: by being bombarded, as we constantly are, with undigested information about which we can do nothing. It seems to me that people (not counting great geniuses, either evil or holy) are effective, and therefore fulfilled, only within the quite small areas in which their actions can make a difference. A local newspaper may be dull, but it tells us what goes on in our own county or city, and if we seriously want to we can react to the news we get from it in a way which may produce results. A national newspaper gives us information about famine in China or a bloody coup in Africa or an outrage against the Kurds in Turkey or an American "pre-emptive strike" in the Middle East ... and what can we do about any of that except be shocked or distressed (or perhaps smug).

Vastly significant events are thus turned into a form of entertainment - even more shockingly so when they are presented as images on a screen. To question the value of the widest possible dissemination of information is, these days, tantamount to blasphemy, but are not populations addicted to information gained in this way being corrupted, their reactions trivialised, becoming appropriate to an evening in the movies rather than real life? And can this be a good thing?

Books are another matter, because they rarely simply report: they weigh, argue, agree, disagree. They are the voices of individuals responding to events or ideas, and they invite their readers to think. Paying attention to them is not incompatible with treating much of the media with distrust, however true the facts it is presenting. But even books, although they can show us what we ought to do, can't make us do it.

There are, of course, people who do actively attempt to remedy events "about which we can do nothing". Whether because they have been taught to help others, or are lucky enough to have been born good, they up and off with field ambulances and so on, and that kind of unselfish impulse fills me with admiration. Nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers: obviously there are some in the caring professions who are not morally fine, but still those are the professions in which people are recognising the reality and importance of their fellow beings in genuinely helpful ways, and I know I would be a better woman if I were one of them. But I am no more able than dear James Boswell to overcome my failings, so I am not.

I am too selfish. At the prospect of close involvement with more than a very few others, I jib. Only when alone can I feel fully alive: a very diluted form of a disposition common among people with an inclination to write or to practise any other form of art. At its most intense it makes monsters of people in their private lives, which probably explains why great artists are usually male, since females are biologically slanted away from the extreme forms of this disposition, and have to devote a good deal of attention to others. I do so myself, and am glad to do it, but I cling more fiercely with every year to what is left over from that necessary domestic and social expenditure. The need eclipses guilt at not being a different kind of person.

So I conclude that it is a waste of an old person's time to worry about not being what one ought to be: chances to change missed are chances to change lost (let the young remember that!). Put as much goodness as you can into the cultivation of your own little garden, enjoy it as much as you can without harming others, and you won't leave the world much uglier than you found it.

That I have reached such a trite conclusion after 87 years of living is mortifying, but I suppose it is some comfort to remember that it has been reached before by better minds than mine, and it does at least enable me to be a good deal more cheerful than, considering the state of the world, I ought to be, and to recognise that even within the narrow limits of my own experience there has been - there is - kindness, courage, generosity, unselfishness, intelligence, and much else that can rightly be valued and enjoyed. And, of course, there are still books.

· Diana Athill's Stet: An Editor's Life is published by Granta.

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Guardian book club: Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill

John Mullan on Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill.
Week two: using unprofessional prose

John Mullan

07, Mar, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill review – lessons from old age
Avoid romanticism and possessiveness: a clear-eyed view from the ‘high plateau’

Tessa Hadley

26, Nov, 2015 @12:00 PM

Article image
Rosset by Barney Rosset review – a publisher’s fight against censorship
This memoir of the American publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer is full of landmark literary moments

Merve Fejzula

21, Dec, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
Review: Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill

It's a relief to find an amusing look at getting old in Diana Athill's Somewhere Towards the End, says Katharine Whitehorn

Katharine Whitehorn

12, Jan, 2008 @11:49 PM

Guardian book club: Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill

John Mullan on Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill. Week four: readers' responses

John Mullan

21, Mar, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Guardian book club: Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill
John Mullan on Somewhere Towards the End

John Mullan

28, Feb, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Review: Yesterday Morning by Diana Athill

Diana Athill's memoir, Yesterday Morning, reminds us of the consolations of age and the common nature of experience, says Nicholas Lezard

Nicholas Lezard

04, Jan, 2003 @12:14 AM

Master classes

Commentary: Melvyn Bragg celebrates the relaunch of a creative writing academy.

Melvyn Bragg

01, Jul, 2006 @10:55 PM

Article image
Review: A Lover of Unreason by Assia Wevill

Assia Wevill was airbrushed from the Hughes/Plath heritage. Peter Porter welcomes her restoration by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev in A Lover of Unreason.

Peter Porter

28, Oct, 2006 @12:38 PM

Article image
Review: A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts

Kevin Rushby enjoys Jason Roberts's remarkable story of a far-sighted blind man, A Sense of the World.

Kevin Rushby

11, Aug, 2006 @11:24 PM