Read Do You Think You're Clever? Online

Authors: John Farndon

Tags: #Humour

Do You Think You're Clever? (6 page)

What books are bad for you?

(English, Cambridge)

Well, speaking personally, quite a lot of books are bad for me. I suffer from an allergic reaction to the mould spores that billow off any book that’s been sitting for a while gathering dust – which is a really positive incentive not to leave them unread for too long!

In the USA, recently, they started to introduce a law, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, saying all books pre-1985 are bad for children, because the inks used to print them contain lead. Some of the pigments used in medieval manuscript books were poisonous, too, such as lead white and vermilion, so no doubt they were bad for you if, like many scribes, you had the habit of licking your brush to bring it to a point. In Umberto Eco’s
The Name of the Rose
, some of the monks are poisoned by arsenic on
the pages of manuscripts when they wet their fingers to turn the pages. And in Webster’s play
The Duchess of Malfi
(1612–13), the Cardinal’s mistress Julia dies after kissing a book that has been deliberately poisoned. I’m sure, too, that over time, not a few people have acquired a headache after a clout with a heavy tome, or a bruised toe, and in Forster’s
Howard’s End
, the character Leonard Bast is killed by a falling bookcase. Indeed, death by falling bookcase seems to be a popular literary device, resonant with ironic symbolism for a victim obsessed by books.

However, maybe we should focus on the verbal content of books, rather than books as weapons. People have often lamented the effect of bad – that is, low-quality – books. Like bad daytime TV, trashy romances and thrillers are said to turn people’s minds to mush. People were saying much the same thing 200 years ago. Back in the time of the Napoleonic wars, the older generation in particular shook their heads and rued the effect of the new gothic and romance novels of authors such as Ann Radcliffe and Madame de Staël then so much in vogue with young girls. What these girls needed, they insisted, was a bracing dose of Socrates and Tacitus rather than these lightweight fictions that did nothing but inflame the imagination. And of course such attitudes rubbed off on some of the more high-minded youngsters. In her book on
Women and Gender in 18th-Century Russia
, Wendy Rosslyn quotes an earnest adolescent girl who pompously proclaims that ‘novels do
not do you any good and only lead you away from really good books’.
Plus ça change

Among those indecently inflamed imaginations, of course, were great authors such as Jane Austen and Mary Shelley – not to mention a whole generation of other women whose imaginary worlds and ambitions were so crucially enlarged by reading ‘trashy’ novels. Just as now we can see the positive side of those early gothic and romantic novels, maybe people will in time see the value of what seems trash now.

Beyond low-quality literature, though, there are throughout history books that have been considered so dangerous that they have been consigned to the bonfire. Indeed, whole libraries such as the Greek library at Alexandria and the House of Wisdom in Baghdad have been consigned to the flames. For most libertarians, the burning of any book is deplorable. It’s not simply that it’s a curtailment of free speech, though that is worrying enough, but a book is somehow even more precious, as a distillation of thought, a child of the human mind. That’s why the Nazi book-burnings seem a tragedy. So do the Spanish conquistadors’ burning of Mayan codices.

And yet, there are some book burnings that most of us would actually condone – such as the police disposal of books of child pornography. As a libertarian, I hesitate to say that it’s right to destroy any book, or that categorically any book is harmful, but a book of child pornography probably is, not primarily because the contents are corrupting,
though they may be, but because the production of the book involved abuse. Any book that could be produced only by abusing someone would be bad to encounter for any purpose other than to prevent the abuse.

There may be a difference, of course, between books that are ‘bad’ for me personally and books that may be ‘bad’ for people in general. Conservatives and reactionaries believe that there are such things as dangerous books; books that are bad for people. The conservative news forum
Human Events
asked sympathetic scholars to come up with a list of what they considered to be the most harmful books of the last two centuries. Not surprisingly, Marx and Engel’s
Communist Manifesto
comes top of the list. Also near the top is Hitler’s
Mein Kampf,
the thoughts of Chairman Mao and the
Kinsey Reports
on sex. A less obvious inclusion is John Dewey’s 1916
Democracy and Education
, which the authors of the list claimed encouraged a skills- rather than knowledge-and-character-based approach to schooling which ‘helped nurture the Clinton generation’, and J.M. Keynes’ thesis on economics, which they say has saddled the USA with massive public debt. These inclusions begin to show why the notion of ‘harmful books’ is problematic; who is to say what is harmful and what is not? For others, Dewey and Keynes are enlightened and seminal writers.

Of course, one can argue that without
Mein Kampf
neither the Holocaust nor the Second World War would have happened, or that without the
Communist Manifesto
Russia would never have suffered Stalin’s brutal regime. But it’s
important to distinguish books from their readers. Books can be immensely powerful. The ideas in them can change the way people think. Yet it was the Nazis and Stalin’s officers who committed terrible crimes, and not
Mein Kampf
or the
Communist Manifesto
– and of course, the
contained many key ideas that are still relevant and important today, long after Stalin has gone. There is a crucial distinction between the book and its effect – it’s crucial because if you talk about a book being harmful rather than its effect you begin to legitimise censorship. Abhorrent ideas need to be challenged by better ones, not banned.

If the questioner was asking what books are bad for me personally, I’d have a different answer. I’d like to think I am clear-headed enough to be able to read books like
Mein Kampf
– I haven’t actually read it – without any ill-effects. But maybe there are books that are bad for me personally. In my teenage years, there were books I became so engrossed in that I missed homework – books such as, early on,
The Lord of the Rings
and later,
Bleak House
. And while working as a road sweeper in the vacations, I couldn’t help myself stopping every now and then to read the next chapter of
War and Peace
in between sweeps. I’m sure I only escaped the sack because all the other sweepers did much less work than me without any literary distractions. So in the wrong time and wrong place the very best books could be said to be bad for me. Of course, in the long run, I feel my life was so much enriched by reading these books that they were nothing but good.

There have been, too, books which have made me miserable with their bleak storylines, or envious because of the richness and wonder of the characters’ lives compared to mine, or bored and depressed by the sheer awfulness of the writing, or simply jealous because of the financial success of their bestselling author. All of these books might be said to be bad for me, too. And yet without most of them I feel my experience of life would be poorer.

What would happen if you drilled through the earth all the way to the other side and then jumped into the hole?

(Engineering, Cambridge)

The world’s deepest man-made hole is the Kola Superdeep Borehole beneath the Kola Peninsula in Russia, which plunges 7.6 miles below the surface. Drilling began in 1970 and went on for 24 years, until it became too hot to continue – and that shows just how hypothetical this question is. This ‘superdeep’ hole has penetrated less than 0.1 per cent of the way through the earth, yet already has been utterly defeated by heat and pressure.

So to answer this question, we have to assume that magic has allowed this hole to be drilled and for the bore so stay open rather than collapse. If so, how many other elements of magic do we assume? My guess is that we’re being asked to forget the likelihood of being fried by the
earth’s internal heat before falling more than a few miles into the hole, or crushed by the rising air pressure before falling much further (but see below). My guess, too, is that we’re being asked to ignore the likelihood of the earth’s rotation and motion through space quickly flinging you fatally against the side of the hole – unless it’s a very, very wide hole or the hole is at just the right angle. Of course, with luck you’d black out from the speed of the fall a while before you met your demise …

This is actually a popular conundrum that many people have tried to answer. Yet there are so many ifs and buts that each answer is pretty meaningless and my speculations here are no less so.

So for a moment, forget that you’re human, and imagine that you’re completely indestructible. If the borehole were air-filled, the air would get increasingly dense towards the centre of the earth. It would at first be liquid, probably not that far down into the hole, and then solid, so the hole would be blocked. If you jumped in, you’d fall increasingly fast under the pull of gravity, until you reached normal terminal velocity as the acceleration due to gravity was matched by increasing air resistance. Very soon, though, you’d begin to slow down as the air became increasingly dense. It would be a little like diving into a pool. Your momentum would carry you a certain way down, but then you’d bob back up again and float on the dense air a little way down the hole, as if you’d fallen in a well.

OK, what if, instead, the borehole were a vacuum-tube and the earth were stationary? Well, then, there’d be nothing to stop you accelerating to an astonishing speed as you plunged into the hole. Nothing, that is, except the pull of earth’s gravity. As you plunged nearer and nearer the centre of the earth, you’d pass through more and more of the earth’s mass which would then begin to hold you back. It’s likely that the braking effect of the mass of the earth’s gravity that you passed by as you fell would slow you down to a standstill long before you reached the centre of the earth, where the acceleration due to gravity is nought. Your momentum would mean you’d probably overshoot by a little way the point where gravity pulling you down was balanced by gravity holding you back, but you’d soon ‘fall’ back up to the balance point and overshoot until you started to fall again. Eventually, after oscillating a few times, you’d hover at the balance point. Since the radius of the earth is 4,000 miles, I guess this balance point would be around 1,000 miles down. And there you’d be, hovering in the dark, until someone was kind enough to throw a magic rope down …

Does a Girl Scout have a political agenda?

(Law, Oxford)

First of all, it’s worth asking what a political agenda is. An agenda is simply a list of things to do, but in the context
of politics it has come to have a slightly more pejorative meaning. A
agenda could simply mean a list of things for a political party to do. More often, though, it’s something neither quite spoken nor written down. It may be the general tendency of politics across the spectrum. Or it can be the hidden political aims of an apparently apolitical organisation, and this is what the question is about: do Girl Scouts have aims that can be seen as essentially political, even though they are not officially a political organisation?

Interestingly, the question asks ‘Does a Girl Scout …?’ rather than ‘Do the Girl Scouts …?’ which is subtly different, but I’ll address the second first. The Girl Scouts are the American version for girls of the raft of youth organisations started by Lord Baden-Powell in the early twentieth century. Their uniform and very traditional value system have often suggested a kind of militarism, especially since Baden-Powell was himself a soldier. Yet Baden-Powell set up the Boy Scouts to get away from the militarism of the Boys’ Brigade and the uniform was intended to eliminate differences in social standing. The idea was to develop independence and resourcefulness combined with a strong sense of duty in young people. In retrospect, maybe, the traditional values of scouting have given it the aura of a political movement. But the aim of the Scouts was not to change society or the way it’s governed, which must be the aim of a political movement, but rather to mould
individuals. It was about self-improvement, not social improvement – and this is still largely so.

When Juliette ‘Daisy’ Low came back to America to set up the Girl Scouts in 1912 after working with the Girl Guides in the UK, her aim was slightly different. While she wanted to give America ‘something for all the girls’ just like the Guides, there was a general move afoot in the USA to give women more independence. It was not a movement for political power as such, but it was for social power, and it was attached to a liberal, Democratic political agenda. The Girl Scout organisation could be said in some ways to have been created by women who emerged from this movement, and there has always been a sense that despite its espousal of traditional values, the Girl Scout movement had liberal political sympathies. In recent years, right-wing commentators have commented on how speakers at Girl Scout conferences have sometimes had ‘radical’ political agendas, insinuating that the movement has been tainted by the presence on the platform of ‘prolesbian, pro-abortion’ speakers. But being willing to listen to particular political views – and even being sympathetic to them – would not turn the Girl Scouts into a movement with a political agenda.

It might be argued that the Girl Scouts have a particular set of ideals, a particular code of social behaviour that they want to promote. They believe in community and group identity and support the idea of hierarchies of rank, earned on merit. But it would be stretching a point to say that the
organisation has a political agenda – that it has intentions to change the system of government, or even to change society at large. Their aim is to promote these values primarily among their own members, each one of whom joins voluntarily, and if promotion goes beyond the Scouts, it’s simply to encourage membership.

There is a superficial similarity to other uniformed youth movements (uniforms and youth and traditional values), like the Hitler Youth and more recently the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the fundamentalist Hindu movement in India, both of which had or have obvious political agendas. Yet it would be stretching the notion of a political agenda to suggest the Girl Scout movement has one – which is not to say that some members of the organisation do not have political agendas which they join the movement to promote, and use the Girl Scouts to promote.

This brings us on to the question: ‘Does a Girl Scout …?’ It may well be that many Girl Scouts do have a political agenda, but when it comes to the average Girl Scout, I would say almost certainly not. It’s true that when she joins the Scouts, she embraces certain values. She must promise:

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God
and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.

Since the 1990s, the inclusion of God has been optional.

The Girl Scout law says: ‘I will do my best to be: honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong, and responsible for what I say and do, and to respect myself and others, respect authority, use resources wisely, make the world a better place, and be a sister to every Girl Scout.’

By embracing these views she signs up to a particular way of looking at society and accepts it. But this does not mean she has a political agenda. It’s not her purpose to change the system of government or the nature of society as a whole. Indeed, I’m sure most Girl Scouts join with no political intentions at all. They join for the fun activities, to feel a sense of belonging and to make friends. So, on an individual level, the
Girl Scout probably does not have a political agenda, even though there may be many Girl Scouts who do.

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