Say it loud, say it proud: I'm bookish

by Guy Somerset / 03 December, 2011
So David Parker reads, so what?

Shortly after graduating from university in the UK in the late 1980s, I went for an interview for an advertising sales rep job on the Cambridge Evening News. I had in my hand a book (this being Cambridge and all). It was an Iain Banks, as I recall, nothing fancy. Nonetheless, spying it so brazenly about my person, my interviewer asked if I thought I was entirely suited to advertising sales and whether I might not be a better fit for editorial. He must have written my rejection letter the moment I walked out the door, for this was 4pm and it was there in the post the next morning.

I was reminded of this conversation reading the following observation about shortlived Labour Party leadership candidate David Parker by Dominion Post political editor Tracy Watkins in her column in today’s paper: “There was never any doubt about Mr Parker’s intellectual grunt, but there was always a huge question mark over his hunger for the job or whether his bookishness would be a big public turnoff.”

When Watkins says “bookishness” here, is she using it as code for “aloofness” or “wonkishness” (and are we to take it this is universally accepted code?) or is Parker indeed a big reader?

And is being a big reader such a big mark against him? Does it disqualify a man from running for public office?

There’s a very silly 1997 David Mamet film called The Edge – directed, I am now reminded, by Lee Tamahori - in which, as Amazon describes it, Anthony Hopkins is “a reserved and intellectual billionaire” and Alec Baldwin an “urbane fashion photographer” who go head to head with a giant Kodiak bear and each other after their plane crashes in the wilderness. Hopkins’s survival, the film makes explicit, is a result of his very reserve and intellect – and, more explicitly still, of his reading books.

Mamet overstates his case (he is, after all, Mamet) but nonetheless what’s so wrong with a bit of bookishness?

For me, not reading books ought to disqualify you from public office. Which is just one of the reasons this made such dispiriting reading. (On a more positive note, I did one of those What I Am Reading columns with Bill English after he was toppled as National leader and he revealed he was enjoying Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy – a nice touch, that – and was a subscriber to the New York Review of Books. I don’t think that was the reason they'd got rid of him.)

At least in some countries reading is seen in a positive light: witness Vaclav Havel's presidency of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic and Mario Vagas Llosa's running for the presidency of Peru.

That Cambridge Evening News advertising manager was absolutely right: I would have made a lousy ad sales rep and within six months was indeed in editorial (although not there).

But I don’t think it had anything to do with reading an Iain Banks novel.


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