Headmaster’s Thoughts – February 2014

I suppose there are people who do not like lists, but I am not one of them. The internet is flooded with them nowadays, and I read them all. The ten best ways to cook a squirrel, the ten things one should never do on a crowded train, the ten best movies of 1965, the … you get the picture. Of course, list-likers like me (ah, the art of alluring alliteration) are naturally pushed into hypochondria by all the websites available. You have a cough and wonder how long it will last. Most sites will tell you 17 days (which is longer than I have ever had a cough) and then will give you other symptoms to help you find out whether you have a more serious condition. Are you tired? Yes! Check that! Do you want to avoid doing any work? Yes, certainly sometimes … so, check that! Do you feel tense? Yes! Do you feel that you are unappreciated? Yes, sometimes … check that! When you add all the checks, they give you a diagnosis according to how many yesses you have. I always have ten out of ten and, therefore, am likely to die from total lung collapse at any moment. Indeed, it seems surprising that I survived to the end of the list. And this is merely looking up about a cough.

All of this has little to do with the subject of this piece, except to say that I really like lists. And if I have a “to do” list, I truly enjoy the pure pleasure of filling in a box as “done!” I think that is why I look back at my high school years with fondness as a time of real growth in my learning. We did not get that much homework at my school; I don’t know why, but we did not. There were never multi-choice-answer tests (few believed in them then, and I have never been totally convinced of their value since), but we were required to write essays. Since I actually like to write essays (as you may have noticed over the last ten years of these “thoughts”), I did the requisite two or three hours a night on them and (if I do say so myself) did well at them.

I grew up in an age when there were neither computers, nor cell phones, nor text messages, nor (at least not in my home) television sets. This left a great deal of time on my hands, particularly as I was not allowed to go out to see my friends on a school night. In practical terms, I was alone a great deal of the time. But I was very fortunate because we had a great library system in our part of London. The Willesden Green Library system was quite remarkable. It had several branches, and you could take out four books at a time. Looking back, what is even more extraordinary is that they gave me my own room at a local branch to study. Why they did this for a schoolboy like me, I have never quite found out. They had these archive rooms upstairs from the main collection, and I was offered the opportunity to study in the one that archived the local newspaper (The Willesden Chronicle) every day until the library closed at eight at night. I suppose they must have offered this to other people who just did not take them up on the offer, and maybe three or four times in my several years of using this room, someone would come and look at one of the volumes of the complete collection of the Chronicle dating back to its origin in the time of Queen Victoria. In reality, I was just left alone in a room with a large communal desk and several chairs.

So—you might be wondering where this is going—after I finished my homework, I would read. And I would take books home with me to read after I ate dinner, until I went to sleep. I want to stress again that there was nothing else to do. The list part is important because, when I was about fourteen, I read a book called The Idea of History by R. G. Collingwood, and at the back of the book was the greatest bibliography of important books I had ever (indeed, have ever since) seen. R. G. Collingwood was a Professor of History at Oxford in the nineteen twenties and thirties who had some physical issues probably caused by strokes from which he died at a young age. He was, apparently, a brilliant historian. At fourteen, I did not fully understand The Idea of History, but even then, I knew a good list when I saw one. Collingwood not only had this great list of the most important books (in his opinion, and who was I to argue?), but he also had brief descriptions of what was in each book with comments about their relevance, value, and validity. In other words, the man had actually read them all.

There was my list of lists: alphabetical by author, over a hundred books, with publication dates and the publishers’ names so I could ask the librarian to get the book if it was not available in the collection in the grand lending section beneath me. To their great credit, the librarians tried on every occasion (with virtually total success) to get the books I asked for.

I kept R.G. Collingwood’s Idea of History all the way through high school as one of the four books I was allowed to borrow. Unfortunately, I gave it back when I got my university scholarship and left school to live in Paris before I went to Oxford. I say “unfortunately” with real emphasis because I have never again been able to find that edition of the book with its wonderful bibliography. It was re-published as an easy-to-find paperback, but it came without the bibliography—the list, the very best part of the book. Because of writing this piece, I have tracked down a hardback first edition through AbeBooks.co.uk. I have not received it, but they say they have found a copy and I should get it in 60 days.

I did not manage to read close to all of the books on the list (only R.G. could have accomplished that), but when I did finish a book (or at least that part that I could understand), I would put a very small pencil check mark against the name of the book in the Bibliography. What a wonderful feeling that was! Early on I could check off Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (not very interesting because they basically are lecture notes) and later Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and so on alphabetically through the world’s great books. Darwin’s book had such an influence on me that as a family we have been to the Galapagos Islands nine times and are going again (if I survive a cough with all those deathly symptoms) next year. Some books I tried and skipped because they were above me (Kant is not light reading), and some because they bored me (actually quite a few fell in this category.) But I can say that I tried to read as many as I could because I wanted to check them off the list. That is what it was all about. I wrote in one of these “Thoughts” about the summer of 2009 when I finally read (and became mildly obsessed by) Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I had never before made it through the first 80 pages (and the first 80 pages are boring … War is so much more interesting than Peace), but—joy of joys—I completed that item in the list in my sixties. Now if I still had that old Collingwood book, I could make another checkmark.

In the twenty-first century it would be naïve to even hope that a young person would spend his or her time doing what I did. But, as I said, there was little else to do and I did not have a particularly happy home. The “List” filled my time and gave me a love of reading I have never lost. I still read several books a week and often two or three different ones during the same time period; particularly if I want to break the heaviness of one book with the lightness of another, I will switch around.

There are people who do not like lists but, clearly, I am not one of them.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org 

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