Opinion

Paul McNamee: The magic is on the page

"The transportive, joyous element of books can never be overstated – words change lives"

Last week I climbed a hill in Scotland called Lochnagar. At 3,786 feet it’s a Munro – a Scottish peak of more than 3,000 feet. I’ve now climbed two. The first was on the way to Lochnagar. I was there to mark the birthday of a friend and to be with him as he completed the set of Munros – all 282. I have some distance yet to climb.

It was glorious. The walk in took us through bog and scaling rock over a decent sized ridge. The view from the top of Lochnagar will stay with me forever. West over hills I cannot name towards an unseen Ben Nevis and beyond, east towards Aberdeen and the coast, the great Cairngorms, older than the Alps, rising around.

Later on, in a local village hall for food and dancing, the same friend spoke to thank those who’d come. He finished with a reading from WH Murray. It was a moving moment. Murray was a pioneer of climbing in Scotland between the wars. What was moving was that the piece chosen, speaking lyrically of the hills and their appeal, was written when Murray was a POW during World War Two. The words were written on toilet paper as he was trapped but his mind ran free. I discovered later that the first entire draft he had written – it would eventually become the book Mountaineering in Scotland – was discovered and destroyed by the Nazis. So he simply started all over again.

It is hidden, protected from the constant shelling, and prized beyond all else by those who use it

This week, we learned of an incredible library in Darayya, a part of besieged Damascus. It is hidden, protected from the constant shelling, and prized beyond all else by those who use it. There are 14,000 books in there. And the brave souls in the city scour ruined buildings for editions they can bring back. It is refuge and release. Though trapped, the words fill them and transport them. As they had for Murray.

There is magic in books. Each holds many keys and those keys can pop up at any time and unlock things within us, frequently unbidden. This transportive, joyous element can never be overstated.

This week we carry a cover with Harry Potter on it. The enduring impact of Potter is not down to clever marketing or big movies – though that helps of course. It’s because JK Rowling created a world so complete that a generation spent years within it feeling at one with the characters and are now excited to take it to the next generation. It endures.

We are lucky in Britain because we have libraries that contain these worlds to explore. For free! We don’t use them half enough and we don’t make enough noise when they are under threat. We can explore the pages then, if we choose, go outside and explore some more. When we read of the library of Darayya we should feel privileged that we can move freely, up to Lochnagar or wherever the fancy takes us.

And we should always, always find ways to open the pages for those who need them most. There are many great initiatives in Britain to help reading grow, especially for children in poor areas. Research has shown the huge value they bring. They are worth our support.

Words change lives.

If you have any comments please email me at: paul.mcnamee@bigissue.com or tweet @pauldmcnamee

Top image by: Rich Grundy

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