March 17th, 2009


Word of Life

Cornflower’s post today was so interesting that I felt I had more to say on the subject than would fit into a comment on her blog. She writes about comfort reading, not the ‘equivalent of the cosy sweater, or the mug of hot chocolate, but … this much deeper more literal form of comfort’. She gives a link to an interview with Alexander McCall Smith in which the interviewer, Elizabeth Grice, says of him, ‘He has become more of a movement, a worldwide club for the dissemination of gentle wisdom and good cheer. Letters pour in from people to say they have found his books inspiring, enlightening, amusing, comforting. They are read to the sick and the dying.’

McCall Smith’s books are light fiction but they nevertheless engage with the eternal verities and isn’t this the ‘deeper comfort’ Cornflower refers to? The greatest writers, especially Shakespeare, seem able to explain our own emotions to us. One might come out of a performance of Anthony and Cleopatra in tears, but not depressed and having shared the emotion with our fellow theatre-goers. Great writing reminds us of our common humanity, whether it’s John Donne asking ‘for whom the bell tolls’ or T S Eliot writing, in The Dry Salvages

‘Where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing
Into the wind's tail, where the fog cowers? …
…We have to think of them as forever bailing,
Setting and hauling,’

The comfort being that we are all in the same boat. What McCall Smith shares with greater writers is the moral compass and, I think, compassion, and this is why he appeals so strongly to people looking for a good deed in a naughty world.

(Word of life supplying Comfort to the dying, from the hymn by Henry Baker.)