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Books Column: Of small stories that nudge us along

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

Ben Williams takes heart from the youngest generation of storytellers, just getting started.

My child of six has started writing books.

But wait – first, let’s tackle the matter of it being December. For, indeed, December has arrived, and as usual, has given us two jobs. 

One: think upon the significant milestones of our latest junket around the sun. Where have we been, what have we done? (What books have we left aside, much to our chagrin?)

Two: squint into the future, aiming to discern opportunities ahead. Hazy January’s just there, around the bend, ready to be blinked at and missed. February’s blurrier but practically already in the rear-view mirror. March is where the action is – sweet, treacherous March, when our momentum for the annum will finally be determined, for better or worse. March, the true keeper of the promise and risk of a new year. What does mysterious March portend?

No, thank you. Cut the ignition on time for a moment, if you please. 

2021 scuttled around our feet like a maddened scorpion in the broiling desert. On present intelligence, 2022 looks to be an even rougher (scuttle-ier, sting-ier) beast. I’ve no wish to gaze backward or peer forwards. One can have only so much of wastelands.

Instead, I wish, simply, to stay in the here and now, holding the book my child of six wrote, all by herself.

It’s the first in a series of books, in fact – and they’re pretty good, too. Each is five to 10 pages in length; they’re peppered with charming phonetic spellings; and they document the adventures of a character called Catbee (pronounced as written) who solves the myriad problems that vex the creatures of her world. 

For example: a colony of bees missing their hive; a coalition of cheetahs without presents (“coalition” being the official collective noun for cheetahs, of course); and so on.

At six, my child has mastered the critical narrative device of the cliffhanger. Often, Catbee comes up with a “grate idire” at the end of a chapter, without revealing what it is, requiring us to turn the page out of sheer suspense. How will Catbee’s ingenuity save the day, yet again?

Of course, my little one’s miniature tales, in all their innocence, slash like a sabre at my heart. For I’m raising her into a world of cliffhangers, aren’t I? Cliffhangers whose enormity evades comprehension, like the abyss. We adults are collectively holding our breath, as the air crackles with the approach of an interregnum of one kind or another. Not to be too dramatic, but between the pandemic, ecological collapse, and the barbarians currently bashing through democracy’s gates, a certain caesura of civilisation feels imminent.

The thing that’s holding me together, for the present at least, is stories. In a story, you see, it’s the next page that counts; and this saving grace of interest and momentum confers upon us a unique species of hope. You don’t need comprehension if you have hope. And you don’t need to fear for hope as long as stories are around.

In that, my child of six and her sidekick, Catbee, are doughtily planning their world’s way forward. With their stories comes hope. It’s as simple as that.

Let’s have more grate idires in 2022, then – small epiphanies of stories to nudge us along – and less of the wearying, ubiquitary rest. Good year-end to you, dear reader; safe portage to January; see you then. DM/ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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  • Reading is inspirational and cathartic. It is also a great escape from all the bad news that we face on a daily basis. I challenged myself to read 24 (two a month) books in 2021. At the same time I pretty much gave up TV and wasting hours playing games on my computer. And guess what? I have read 157 books in 2021. Some rubbish, some mediocre and some spectacular.

    And Catbee sounds like an absolute delight! You will have to publish each story as it becomes available.

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