I went into some detail about George’s reading habits in my previous post (Education and Schooling) but there is more to tell about his love for books. As I have already mentioned, George’s parents were barely literate and certainly not interested in literature. George writes, ‘Ours was a house without books. My Father never held a book in his hands, and mother read the Bible only’ (36). A theme develops as I increase my understanding of George’s life – he becomes an intelligent, conscientious, and thoughtful man, against all social odds.
Despite the lack of encouragement from his parents, George eventually discovers the joys or reading at the age of 8 and forms a small personal library. His reading habits were entirely solitary, and, sadly, he most likely had no one to discuss his books with until much later in his life when he attended evening classes.
A little later in his life George was given a book, Samuel Smiles’ Self Help, by a former teacher. This is the point in George’s life where books start to change him radically. An extract of Self Help reads:
“Heaven helps those who help themselves” is a well-tried maxim, embodying in a small compass the results of vast human experience. The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual; and, exhibited in the lives of many, it constitutes the true source of national vigour and strength. Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates.
It is very easy to imagine how relevant this passage would have been to George at this stage of his life, coming from a poor, religious family, with no real prospects. He writes, ‘I began to see myself as an individual, and how I may be able to make break from the general situation of which I had regarded myself an inseparable part’ (61), highlighting how much of a turning point this was in his life. The shift in content of his auto-biography is clear to see from this point onwards, from asinine anecdotes to clear, driven, life progress.
There is a point in his life, however, where George feels conflicted about his future. As he progresses through the ranks of his mining career he ‘perceived the emergence of a gulf that separated [him] from the members of [his] class’ (73). He feels an immense social pressure to remain loyal to his roots and chooses to deny himself potential great success. George writes about how he resolved the situation, ‘I would have to make a fresh adjustment to life… I sold my collection of books and resumed activity as a coal miner’ (74).
His abandonment of study and reading in general was indicative of his settlement for mediocrity. After a short stint back in the mines as a lowly worker, George realises his choice was not as clear cut as it first seemed, he didn’t have to ‘abandon’ his class to improve himself. He eventually resumes his studying and reading, and never feels quite as guilty about it.
On a separate, final, note, it is interesting to see that George’s writing is quite influenced by his reading habits. He has a very clear and precise way of conveying information, which we can assume was honed by his passion for scientific books such as Principles of Geology. However some sections of his writing are broader and more vague, almost philosophical, maybe influenced by his consumption of religious texts, and maybe even the aforementioned Self Help.
Gregory, George, ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:283.
Smiles, Samuel. Self Help. Web, Project Gutenberg. Accessed 22/12/2014.