The Faintest Ink
In our household, we often talk about having our own mantras. I can never quite decide what mine would be. ‘It’s not rocket science’ is probably the phrase I use most often, but since I know nothing about how to propel a projectile into space, I am not really very well placed to comment. I would tentatively and very quietly propose that my wife’s might be: ‘Can I make a suggestion?’, which normally comes part-way through a project I am trying to complete, just at the point where things are not going well.
There is no doubt, however, that my daughter would choose: ‘Read the book before you see the film.’ She has always been an avid reader, for example having consumed over thirty books since she came home from university in March. I tease her that most of what she reads is teen pulp fiction, usually involving the word ‘dystopian’, but this does her a significant disservice because she is far better read in the classics of English literature than I have ever been.
She was particularly animated this week, not because it looks increasingly likely that she will be able to go back to St Andrews to resume her university studies in September, but because everyone in the family was reading a book that was originally bought by her. Quite often my wife will read the same book as her, but when the suggestion is made that I might like it too, I tend to defer. Once or twice each summer we all alight on the same book – last year it was Marcus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay, which was very well received all round – but mostly we plough our own reading furrows. Well, I do.
This year, we are still waiting for the book that pleases all the family, but this week my wife is reading The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, while I devoured Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter in just a couple of evenings. It is a ghost story set during a 1930s Arctic expedition to Spitsbergen, that rattles along nicely, if you will pardon the pun, but which would probably have had more impact as a midwinter read rather than on the hottest day of the year so far.
One reason why we all like different books and are not always keen to take the recommendation of others can be found in Rebel Ideas, by Matthew Syed, a book that I will be the only one in the house to read, because my recommendations almost always fall on stony ground. Syed talks about the ‘wedding list paradox’, highlighting how difficult it can be for us to step beyond our own frames of reference. You will probably know from your own experiences about couples who get married and who produce their own very specific list of what they want as a wedding gift. You may be the type of person who just buys something from the list, because it’s usually just easier that way.
But many wedding guests often want to buy something of their own choice, creating the paradox that senders prefer unique gifts while recipients prefer gifts from the list. The reason for this, Syed says, hinges upon ‘perspective blindness’, with senders finding it difficult to step beyond their own frame of reference. They imagine how they would feel receiving the gift that they have selected. And, by definition, they would like it a lot, which is why they chose it. Recipients, by contrast, do not experience the anticipated joy, because they have a different set of preferences. Otherwise, they would have put the gift on the list in the first place. This accounts for why most of us still have obscure or, frankly, hideous wedding gifts tucked away at the back of cupboards or in boxes in the attic waiting for us to find the motivation to throw them away.
Last week I was asked to contribute an article to a magazine, but the chances are that it will not be published for several months, so I am facing the dilemma of deciding what to write about. There is not much point in focusing too much on the current situation, because we could be in a very different place by the autumn and let us indeed hope that we are. In which case, a rant about government ineptitude or the hot weather may sound out of date – the bit about the weather, anyway.
My thought at the moment is to try to articulate why I find it so helpful to read non-fiction and use my reading to write things like this blog and, indeed, articles for magazines. When I saw the television and radio producer John Lloyd speak at a conference, I was struck by his advice to read everything but only write down what you find interesting, which is basically what I have been doing for the last few years, alongside making notes at conferences whenever someone like Mr Lloyd says something that I regard as valuable.
‘The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory’ may or may not be a Chinese proverb – people online seem to have remarkably powerful views about things that seem of limited importance to me – but it is a useful way to summarise my approach. It is often a helpful phrase as well when I am trying to impart wisdom to a class of pupils. While most will usually have a pen or a laptop to hand, and I am naïve enough to think their writing and tapping may actually be related to what I say, there are always one or two who just sit there. When I ask why they are not writing, they often claim that they can simply remember the important bits. Cue the Chinese proverb.
I did not start compiling my scrapbooks of other people’s wisdom until I became a head. Before then, any conferences that I went to or books that I read were almost exclusively focused on my subject. You only really know how little you know when you have to explain something to other people, so I spent many years simply trying to keep up with what I needed to teach. As a deputy head, there was just too much to do each day to find the mental bandwidth to read and think, though with hindsight I know my priorities were not right.
On my induction course for headship, Tony Little, who was headmaster at Eton at the time, gave a characteristically wry and to the point summary of what he thought were some of the key features of the role. I have still got the list of what he said and I am looking at it now as I write this. Among the gems are to only put ten things on a ‘to do’ list, because if everything is a priority then nothing will be. He advised to write to clarify your thinking, which was indeed wise, though my favourite was his four ways to deal with stress – gamble, lie, cheat and steal. When we had recovered from the initial shock, he clarified that his recommendations were to gamble on yourself, lie in the shade, cheat the negative thinkers and steal good ideas. I may have been a slow starter, but I have been reading, taking notes and, above all, stealing good ideas ever since.