My dad gave me his copy of 1066 and All That probably 25 years ago. I remember - vaguely, but it definitely happened - that I read it, and didn't understand why it was supposed to be funny. That, I guess, is the mark of what I might call (if I were feeling that way inclined) my cultural capital. I didn't get that some of it was even supposed to be a joke at the time of my first go with it. I'm not sure it's worth the effort of trying to read about over a thousand years of British history just to get a few nifty puns and deliberate obfuscations, the odd reference to burnt cakes and surfeits, but it highlights to me that the era of knowing things for the sake of knowing them is over. Now, anyone (normal, at least) wanting to know about British history refers to Wikipedia - I know I use it for a rough-and-ready reference guide when I'm in 'historical' mode - rather than consulting the large, dusty volumes that reside on my shelves. I will say this, though. The books may not be perfect in the scholarship, or the argument, they may embody Victorian prejudices, or fail to excite in their literary style, but there is something abundantly beautiful about the books themselves. There's a sense of the history of the book itself, as well as the history about which it is written, something additional about the object rather than just the text. For some reason, that matters more to me with my history books than it does with my novels, although I do enjoy a good Victorian Octavo or even better a Duodecimo for reading one-handed on the bus or the tube. But that is a practical preference, not led by a loyalty to the object itself. My Hunter's History of Hallamshire was, frankly, well expensive (although someone else paid for it!). And if you clicked on the link, you'll realise that you don't actually need to buy it to read it. But owning the book is a great privilege. In fact, I see myself as a kind of steward of it for some future generation of amateurish historian.
I have a similar attitude to knowledge, I think. I see it as my role to pass it on: "Pass the parcel. That's sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That's the game I want you to learn. Pass it on." Whether that be the feeling of Harmison getting Michael Kasprowicz out at Edgbaston in 2005, or the political peasants in the Monty Python Holy Grail, or Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings, I try to find an excuse every now and then to pass just a little bit of something on.
On that theme, here's another thing I'm passing on today, and for the next couple of days: This Matter of Faith and Heaven's Avenging Angels for free on Kindle. That'll be a decent chunk of a life's work right there, eh?
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought