News of writer P.D. James’ death this week, at 94, sent me to her books in the “J” section of my shelves and then to an hour or so paging about in her memoir, Time to be in Earnest, re-reading bits, savouring details of her activities (the book is written as a diary August 1997 to August 1998 into which she also weaves her memories) and her reactions (the death of Princess Diana that first August, for example: “disbelief, as if….Death has power over lesser mortals but not this icon….The process of beatification was well under way by the end of the day…”). Savoring everything, in fact, because of her wonderfully intelligent, generous voice. I remember how very much I enjoyed reading this book some years ago, and the hours of pleasure with her other books as well. I’ve not read them all by any means, but a good number, including the memorable The Children of Men. And I’ve never forgotten the last paragraph of A Taste of Death:
Then she [Miss Wharton] remember what Father Collins had once said in a sermon when she first came to St. Matthew’s: “…If you feel that you can’t pray, go on saying the words.” She knelt down on the hard floor, supporting herself with her hands grasping the iron grille, and said the words with which she always began her private prayers: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak but the word and my soul shall be healed.”
I’m grateful for P.D. James’ life and work, for what she gave us, and for this assertion: “I don’t see why escapist literature shouldn’t also be a work of art.”
Which reminded me of Canada Reads 2015, and leads me to the following small rant, though a reasonably mild one, I hope, in honor of the late Dame James:
The big name prizes (Giller, Rogers Trust, GG) now out of the way, if just barely, CBC is rousing the reading troops for another round of their annual battle of the books. This year’s theme is “one book to break barriers”. Last year’s was “one novel to change our nation.” I certainly believe in the power of literature to provoke understanding, break barriers, and change us. I’m pleased at the current amazing surge of aboriginal writing, at ongoing immigrant literature, at LGBTQ characters entering mainstream books, at social issues being honestly addressed. I did my duty too–I sent in two suggestions for the barriers theme. But I couldn’t help thinking how relentlessly Canadian this is, this steady drill to correct and help and rally ‘round and basically try to make us nicer and nicer. Two years in a row.
The Canada Reads show, set for February, is always entertaining and provocative. I love the way it highlights books. I’m looking forward to the upcoming bout. Barriers will be pushed at, regardless of which book wins, and that’s good. But there are so many reasons to read besides issues and improvement, and maybe next time (2016) we/they ought to pitch for a book that sets us into our chairs and keeps us there, alive to it, for the sheer pleasure of the book, other benefits emerging as they may or may not.