Books to Lighten the Heart

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In the age before tablets, mobile phones, computers and televisions, many people used to read, and reading was a social asset. Yes, it is so. We who are old enough remember that there was a time, not so long ago, when these wonders of modern living did not exist. Children brought up in this age of instant communication across continents often wonder what we did with our time. One thing was reading. Books, newspapers, journals, magazines and comics were the main sources of passing the time pleasurably and/or educationally.

For moving pictures there were films, or movies as the Americans have it. Silent at first, then with sound tracks. Going to the cinema was a social outing, far removed from just slipping a disc into the home entertainment system. Cinemas still exist, but have been undermined by video and more recently DVD players. In Dalmatia during the summer there are still some outdoor cinemas, but fewer and fewer each year, sadly, just as the once-popular drive-in movie theatres in America have declined.

Using free time wisely is one of the skills of living healthily. Rest and relaxation are important for reviving physical and mental energies. Of course, for a balanced life, there should be a combination of activities and interests to keep body and mind healthy. The human body is a mobile machine, and keeping still for long periods is not what it was designed for. If you have a job which involves sitting or standing through most of your working hours, exercise of some kind during your breaks or before or after work is a must. In the United Kingdom, where unemployment benefits have been higher than the lowest paid jobs, there are reports of families which have never worked, and who often spend most of the day in front of the television. Televisions and computers have helped to make people more sedentary from an early age, and also more isolated from each other.

The development of computer games and the widespread use of computers, tablets and smartphones for entertainment by children are a cause of concern to health workers. Radiation from mobile phones is a risk factor for brain tumours, cancers and genetic damage for all age groups, with children specially vulnerable. Also worrying is the effect on the eyes of watching a small screen at close range, and the development of hunched, crooked posture from holding a device close to the face. Not to mention the mindless violence which seems to be a part of many of the 'games'. Common sense dictates that all these devices should be used on a limited basis only. Unfortunately, as they are addictive, many youngsters spend long hours playing computer games rather than running about outside or doing something more positive.

Reading is a peaceful activity which develops and uses the imagination. Story telling is the first step in arousing a child's interest, and it has been shown that if a parent reads to a child, activates the child's interest in books, and engages the child in learning and social activities, that child will achieve higher intellectual and social/behaviour scores later on than others who have not had the same level of stimulation. (Research project, led by the Institute of Education, London University: Summary, The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE), page 4; detailed report, Tracking Pupil Mobility Over the Pre-School and Primary School Period, 2003 - 2008.)

If the reading habit is established at an early age, it will remain a lifelong pleasure. It is always a pleasure to read a good new book, and most readers have favourites which they return to from time to time. I have selected a rather random top-ten, although there are many more, so it is subject to change and is not an exclusive list. Laughter is one of the best natural therapies, and some of my favourite books invariably make me laugh a lot. For very light fun reading, I enjoy P.G.Wodehouse's Jeeves and Bertie Wooster series. The flimsy plots are carried by the perfectly drawn characters. For all the exaggerated caricatures, there is an echo of the British upper classes as they once were, when snobbery ruled and the gentry did not mix with the hoi polloi; when, for instance, manual workers were not allowed to join the 'gentlemen's' rowing clubs but had their own, called Thames Tradesmen RC; nor were they allowed across the hallowed threshold of the Leander club, but were given a tent to change in outside the building during the famous Henley regatta. Another very funny book is 'Around the World With Auntie Mame' by Patrick Dennis. More educational, but nonetheless extremely entertaining is 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' by Lynne Truss.

For happy memories of the days of amateur tennis before the game became a big-business circus, Gordon Forbes' 'A Handful of Summers' captures with a beautifully light touch the ups and downs of the international tournament circuit, and the particular difficulties of being a South African player in the days of Apartheid. I keep in touch with childhood memories through 'The Wind in the Willows', especially the lyrically evocative chapter seven, 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn'. Memories of Oxford are revitalized by Max Beerbohm's caustic fantasy satire 'Zuleika Dobson'. Helene Hanff's '84 Charing Cross Road' charts the charming and funny relationship between the author and an antiquarian bookseller from the days when Charing Cross Road in London was a treasure trove of intriguing and irresistible bookshops, which I loved to browse in even though I could not afford to buy much. Aidan Crawley's autobiography 'Leap Before You Look' is the interesting and inspiring memoir of a man of immense courage, humour and affection, who had about as rich a life as is possible during both war and peace, including playing his part in high-level British politics.

There are many books by expatriate Britishers who have shared their experiences of settling in other parts of Europe, notably France, Majorca, Spain and Italy. Annie Hawes' 'Extra Virgin - amongst the olive groves of Liguria' about setting up home in northwest Italy stands out for being an interesting story, superbly constructed and beautifully written. It is the first part of a trilogy, and the other two volumes are equally worthwhile. Very few people have written about moving to Croatia. The recent book 'Lavender, Dormice and a Donkey Named Mercedes' by Paul Bradbury, Dalmatia's best-known British blogger and internet journalist, is an extremely entertaining and vivid account of his transition from itinerant aid worker to family man in the small town of Jelsa on Hvar Island. His adventures are unusual, often creating a sense of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, but the main theme is a celebration of his new life embracing a very different culture from that of his native Manchester.

Now that independent bookshops have largely disappeared, there are fewer opportunities for browsing through a large stock of books in any country. The wonderful bookshops of Zagreb were among the first casualties of Capitalism and austerity following the Homeland War of 1991-95. It is heartening to learn that some bookshops have survived and are even thriving, but they are few and far between. In the UK, one successful initiative to keep quality book publishing alive is 'Slightly Foxed', a company which has received well-deserved high praise from Gaby Wood, Head of Books on the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper. Book reviews can help readers identify new books of interest, and the Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books and New York Review of Books are at the forefront of high-quality literary appraisals.

Technology has changed the shape of modern publishing, but books, including printed copies, will always have an important part to play in our lives. Books can be a source of comfort, relaxation, amusement, excitement, inspiration, information and education, so they should not be neglected. My advice to parents: help your children to enjoy reading, and introduce them to the nearest library as quickly as possible. That will be a great gift for life.


Note: the links for the books cited are to, but all are also available on, other bookselling sites and of course through bookshops

© Vivian Grisogono 2013


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