“To understand the world, one must read,” is what his fellow barfly told him.
He was twenty-seven. His educational experiences, in the academic sense, were scant. He left school having just turned seventeen. He met girls and alcohol and fell in love with both. He worked whatever job would put enough money in his pocket for weekend adventures. Ten years quickly passed by and he was still spending his weeks working and his weekends drinking.
His life was simple, and he liked it that way.
He enjoyed quiet drinks in hushed bars. That’s when he’d get talking to his fellow barlfies.
They’d talk about football.
“The striker should be dropped, he’s an overrated pile!”
They’d talk about politics.
“Those shower of toerags should all be lined up against a wall and shot!”
They’d talk alcohol.
“Twelve year, me hole!”
In work, he drove a forklift. It was a cushy number, despite the low temperatures in the warehouse during winter. The new employees would be given the least appealing tasks, and he’d spend most of his days driving and manoeuvring pallets onto high shelves.
His job was simple, and he liked it that way.
One weekend, when enjoying a few pints at the local, he and his fellow barflies noticed an unfamiliar face. He was an old man of about sixty who possessed patchy grey hair and an air of eruditeness. He drank wine, unlike most of those at the bar lined up as if in a seated identity parade for beer brands; their drink of choice was stout.
The unfamiliar face hadn’t said much apart from a ‘hello’ here and there. But when a conversation about a recent political scandal began, the grey-haired man formed a full sentence in their presence for the first time:
“To understand the world, one must read,” he said.
This prompted raised eyebrows from a few sitting at the bar. The old man gulped the remainder of his pint, stood up, and fixed his stool under the bar.
“One must read,” the old man repeated, and then left.
And so he read. From Chomsky to Che, Marcuse to Marx, Sartre to Shaw, he read slowly and earnestly. In his spare time he studied their writings in great depth. On his breaks in work, instead of reading the newspaper in the canteen with his colleagues, he read a book in the empty warehouse office. When he took baths, which he’d always preferred to showers, he would read philosphy. When he relaxed on the couch in the evenings, instead of switching on the latest TV series, he read history. When he sat on the toilet seat, instead of browsing on his phone, he read poetry.
His workdays soon began to bother him. He would ask colleagues their thoughts on the labour theory of value and modern monetary theory, and would be greeted with perplexed stares. He would quote Neruda and be met with derisive laughter.
At the pub, things weren’t much better. When discussing politics and the government’s role in society, he would speak haughtily and authoritatively; he scoffed at suggestions from his fellow barflies who hadn’t read the literature.
Soon, he was no longer welcome at the pub, and his work colleagues were always wary of what he would come out with next.
He found a new bar in a more affluent part of town (three bus rides were necessary) and sat self-importantly in a corner with a book and glass (he’d transitioned to wine). He decided to wear reading glasses, despite not needing them. His attire began to change, too: gone were the navy tracksuits, and in their place were chinos and checked shirts. Every Friday and Saturday, he would sit alone in the new pub with a new book by one of his favourite thinkers. He would overhear conversations by small gatherings of friends and roll his eyes. He would chuckle to himself at the assessment of government by tipsy barflies, whom he now privately referred to as “the lay”.
It was not long before his work colleagues began to notice changes to his lexicon, too. Recent additions included the words ‘incredulous’, ‘polemic’, ‘sobriquet’, ‘pernicious’, and ‘sanguine’. There were new phrases such as ‘mode of production’, ‘critical theory’, and the ‘theory of exploitation’, which he used regularly and with ever-growing confidence and a self-righteous tone.
Eventually, he even joined a book club. At the first meeting, he confidently shook hands with the fellow attendants. He said aloud, “To understand the world, one must read,” which was greeted with condescending smiles (which he mistook for genuine politeness). When he offered his opinion on the labour theory of value, a number of men in the circle laughed aloud.
He frowned and shrugged it off. I’ve now read myriad books by some of the best and brightest minds, he said to himself. Perhaps these people don’t actually read and just get together for a social gathering.
So the book club wasn’t for him, and he continued with his private personal studies and his work. But eventually he grew restless and decided he wanted to find a new career. He left the warehouse and took some time to think about where people who read books would work. He was now an intellectual, after all, and it wasn’t long before he decided that the perfect role for him could be found at government level.
On his first day in the Department of Finance, he offered to his new colleagues his thoughts on the labour theory of value and modern monetary theory, which was met with approving, earnest nods. To this day, his credentials have never been questioned, and rumour has it he’s in line for a hefty pension.
He’s now surrounded by fellow intellectuals, and he likes it that way.
Header image by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.