The Torchlight List
Around the World in 200 books
by Jim Flynn
Published by AWA Press
Reviewed by Paul Smith
The ultimate compliment readers can offer a writer, is that his book is so good they want to read it all over again.
That’s the reaction I had reading not just the main text of Jim Flynn’s book, but the engaging and elegant preface in which he introduces himself, some of the more colourful members of his family - and his concerns about the decline in reading.
Flynn, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Otago University is an internationally respected expert on intelligence and IQ. He’s passionate about reading and in this book of books argues that it builds intelligence and creates a wider knowledge of the forces which shaped us - and still do. But in his 54 years of experience as a university lecturer he has noticed a disturbing trend –fewer and fewer students read great works of literature. So far so bad, but he adds:
Some of my running companions know who Hitler was. As for my students, I once set an exam question about tyranny in the twentieth century. Only a few students could volunteer Hitler’s name… Fortunately a great novelist has charted the period for you: Erich Maria Remarque.
How does he manage to keep the reader glued to the pages of his book when some could say it’s just a list? He uses telling examples like the one above to draw readers into his ‘magic realm’ of books. It’s stunning how much there is to learn from literature even if you’ve spent a lifetime devoted to books and reading.
Flynn begins with C.L.Barber’s The Story of Language. Its main theme, Flynn explains, is how a small cluster of closely related ‘proto-European’ dialects, spoken near the Caspian Sea 7,000 years ago, is the ancestor of the major languages of Europe, Iran and India. Today these are the native tongues of about three billion people he says. So right there as a devotee of both books and history, I’m hooked.
Flynn explores through the books he lists, the human condition, science, continents and countries. There are some stories which even by today’s standards of barbarity, are hard to believe. Flynn lists Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 and writes:
If you want to know why the Irish came to hate the English Crown, in 1845, Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I declared his intention of sending ten thousand pounds sterling to famine-wracked Ireland; Queen Victoria asked him to send only 1000 because she had sent only 2000. The Sultan sent the lesser amount but secretly dispatched three ships full of food. English courts tried to block the ships. However, Ottoman sailors smuggled food ashore at Drogheda Harbour. The Crown did not try to intercept the $710 sent by American Choctaw Indians.
Professor Flynn does not leave us despairing - close but not quite - because in his final chapter he offers some advice to parents. He advises them to read to their children from an early age and to avoid using television as a babysitter (he cites, unfortunately without sourcing) that if they are average, they will have seen 10,000 murders by the age of ten).
His final word comes with a hint of its own disappointment when he writes:
So my last piece of advice to you is what no one wants to hear: if you want your child to love reading, you must learn to love reading yourself.’
This book should help that process immeasurably.