Flouting Destiny

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British publishers, we’re told, turn out around 200,000 new titles every year. That is not a trivial number. In fact, it’s so large a number that one can’t really think any useful thoughts about it. Even if cut down to manageable size by the ruthless application of Sturgeon’s Law (‘Ninety per cent of everything is garbage’), the mind still flounders.

Under these circumstances, it behoves anyone sitting down to write a book and add one more to the print mountain, to ask themselves the careful and sober question, ‘Why am I doing this?’

‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,’ said Dr Johnson. This will be a sufficient answer for some, but it can hardly be said to have settled the question once and for all. However much one admires Johnson’s rocklike common sense, it has to be admitted that it was allied to some fairly rocklike prejudices. In fact there are at least five other possible reasons for writing.

First there is Orwell’s suggestion – REVENGE! Which in turn is a special case of a more general phenomenon – the writer’s desire to order reality into a more satisfactory form than that in which he has actually experienced it. Second is the desire to change the world, to mould reality by moulding men’s thoughts. Third is the desire simply to arrange one’s own thoughts. Fourth is vanity (which doesn’t exclude other motives). And fifth is what we might call the Ancient Mariner scenario – the urge to tell someone something.

My vote is for the last of these. The way I see it is this: because we can only apprehend the world through our senses, we tend to think of it as something outside ourselves. But it may well be that the shoe is actually on the other foot: it is not external to us; we are external to it. Reality is a walled and secret garden and we are on the outside, trying to see in. We peep through holes and cracks, we dangle precariously from branches of overhanging trees, we balance on wobbly

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About the contributor

Roger Jones is a part-time shop-assistant living in Hampshire. His most recent publication, co-written with Mike Ware, is What’s Who? A dictionary of things named after people and the people they are named after.

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