Read One Book

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Homo unius libri

daya dissanayake

It is claimed that Saint Thomas Aquinas used the phrase, "hominem unius libri timeo" ( "I fear the man of a single book"). Another version of his statement is that "a man who has thoroughly mastered one good book can be dangerous as an opponent".

The Christian theologian John Wesley had written, "He came from heaven; He hath written it down in a book. O give me that Book! At any price, give me the Book of God. I have it; here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri!"

In medieval Europe the 'one and only book' owned by a person was the 'Book of Hours', a book acquired or inherited from generation to generation. Written in Latin, and kept wrapped in a cloth, and venerated, it reminds us of the sacred Pirith Book. People recited the psalms and prayers in the Book of Hours, without even opening the book, or understanding the Latin work.

They were all talking about the Good Book. The Book could be the Bible, The Qur'an, The Tripitaka or the Veda for the religious. Any person who reads and understands the words in these sacred texts would naturally lead a peaceful and useful life. Another person could read a great classic with the same devotion and interest, and learn from such a text too, because all great literary works had been influenced by world religions and humane philosophies, even the writings of agnostics and atheists.

That is why the naturalist Charles Kingsley saw The Book in another way. "He is a thoroughly good naturalist who knows one parish thoroughly."

From Bibliomania people move to the other extreme of Bibliophobia, but in-between are those who are neither manic nor phobic, and read only one book. The website readonebook.org for 'One Book One Community', encourages people to read and discuss important issues raised by a single book. Then there are also those who read one book a week, one book a month, sometimes one book a year.

Ones goodreads.com had posed a question on twitter "If you could only read one book for the rest of your life (but could read it as many times as you want), what would it be?" Among the responses were, Ulysses by James Joyce, and 'The Heart of Darkness', but the tweet believed it was written by James Joyce!

Kemba Walker, the basketball champ, is quoted as saying he read only one book in his life, 'Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Redemption and Fall of the Black Athlete' by William C. Rodens.

In 'Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America' James B. Twitchell (Prof. of English, University of Florida), wrote 20 years ago, "How can [literature] live when nearly 60 percent of adult Americans have never read a book and most of the rest read only one book a year? How can it survive when the average post-adolescent American spends forty hours, and at least thirty dollars a week being entertained by non-print media? The notion of a solitary artiste, bent on expressing a unique truth to an attentive audience, is daily growing less important. The concept of author, of authority, of story possession dissolves when our Homer does not know what to tell except by checking the electronic scoreboard."

Had Prof. Twitchell visited our country, he would have been happy with the situation in his own country, because here, going by the sales figures of book publishers, and what we see around us, probably the percentage of people who have never read a book could be much higher. When young people, even young graduates, are asked about Sinhala novels they have read, sometimes they mention Viragaya or Gamperaliya. It is difficult to guess if they have read only that one book in their lives, or if these are the only books they have even heard of. We cannot blame them because some of their teachers, even professors do not read except what is compulsory for their academic pursuits. And then there are also those who take pride in stating that they do not read modern literature, or any literature at all.

Reading one book, means often re-reading. As Vladimar Nabokov wrote, "Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, and active and creative reader is a rereader." A writer like Nabokov has to be reread. he cannot be just read and put aside, except by the mechanical readers.

If we are to read only one book during our life time, we could pick one from the best ten books of all time, according to the Time magazine, which are, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, Lolita, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, In Search of Lost Time, The Stories of Anton Chekhov and Middlemarch. It should not be difficult for anyone to pick at least one from this list, to be read during his lifetime. Who ever compiled this list had probably not heard of the great books of the east published in the last century.

In reality, if we get cut off from the rest of the world, cast away on a remote island, or trapped on a mountain top, any book could be a good companion. Even a dictionary. Man has the power of imagination. He could read one word a day from the dictionary, and use his imagination to weave around this word a thousand stories. He does not even need the dictionary, for his own vocabulary has enough words to last him a lifetime.

We are capable of thinking up our own stories, if we did not have any books to read. As an opponent a man with a good imagination could be as dangerous as a man with one book.

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