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Books Column: New Year, old me — the urge to reconnect with literature burns relentlessly

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

Ben Williams contemplates a message from the universe, as the year kicks into gear.

Literature only.

I was flying American Airlines, Chicago-bound — Chicago, that rumour of a city — and the seat in front of mine at 23B enjoined me in this stern message for the year ahead.

Literature only: so read the tag glued to the top of the seatback, at eye level, above a slot that provided a home for the safety pamphlet and sick bag — those uneasy (and not especially literary) bedfellows.

Looking up the rows of the fuselage — 23B languishes deep in the direction of the aft toilets; in all my decades of flying, I have yet to escape steerage and its stink — I saw that, in fact, every seat bore this message on its back. Literature only rose as the plane’s silent clamour amid the wailing babies, the music and movies of those passengers who did not care for earphones, and the conch-shell thunder of the slowly detonating carbon bomb that whistled us along at 9km above the Earth.

The seats admonished me the entire flight — Literature only, Literature only, they intoned gravely — but of course, the grace with which I receive such messages has, like Roman concrete, only strengthened with time. 

Mine are the knees of an old parishoner’s, you see. The ache in them is simply another form of longing. I recognised the message from the universe, a fresh resolution made on my behalf by the gods, and meekly accepted that, as in the years preceding it, 2024 must have its slot for literature. Further, as in years before, this slot will be outrageously small for the literature one plans to stuff in it, yet always too capacious for the mere scraps that are eventually, pathetically deposited. A handful of leaves of grass, at most.

But: Literature only, insist the gods. 

Always a parishoner, never a priest, yet the temptations still drearily beckon — like the packet of ginger biscuits I was handed by the flight attendant. I chewed them guiltily, the crumbs landing in my lap. 

By the gods, I should not have eaten the biscuits. Similarly, I should not pursue a hobby, check social media, parent my children, indulge in pastimes, or work for a living. I should not have travelled to Chicago. I should have sat at my desk, chastely meditating over a book.

But there is no world, despite the celestial finger wagging, in which we don’t do things other than literature. If only. 

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Not that some don’t try. I’ve seen so many involved in literature dive into 2024 with professed gusto, just as they did in 2023, 2022, 2021 — you get the idea. 

The trend of working on projects in public, in particular, remains especially strong. Ostensibly, you commit to updating your progress on social media, as a way to hold yourself accountable. 

This is bunk, alas. 

First, if you’re actually performing in public for the reason that you say you are, then you’re doing it wrong. (All performances on social media should be to build audience; if there’s any other objective, you’re kidding yourself.) Second, when it comes to literature, your social feed, devoured by a hungry algorithm and regurgitated in microdoses every millisecond, will not hold you accountable. Nor will your feed’s nebulous hangers-on: they’re not that attentive, and, after all, are just there for the performance.

What will hold you accountable, as cliched as it sounds, is the flame of literature inside. The one you know intimately, which licked to life the moment you first encountered literature. The one that isn’t light, but heat; isn’t fickle, but constant — and never extinguished. The one that licks, licks at your heart.

All you can do is tend to the flame. If you tend, you’ll be warmed. If you don’t, you’ll singe.

Literature only.

Towards the end of my flight, I winked at the sign on the seatback. Literature and I will have more to do with each other this year, I promised. Inside, I showed a mouthful of teeth to the flame licking away.

A new year, a familiar resolution. Always one aims to keep it; always one ends up burned. With a nod to Beckett, this year one will aim to be burned less, and warmed more.

Literature, hopefully. DM

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