“A mud hut, but full of books”- Doris Lessing’s Nobel Speech

Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech titled ‘A Hunger for Books’ is devastating to say the very least.

Read the full text here, or see the video of the speech delivered on her behalf (she could not attend the ceremony in Sweden). Windows Media Player required to see the video.

I reproduce the second part of the lecture where she makes her point with a beautiful, touching story. If you are in a hurry, at least read the last line, and come back later to read the entire speech.

I would like you to imagine yourselves somewhere in Southern Africa, standing in an Indian store, in a poor area, in a time of bad drought. There is a line of people, mostly women, with every kind of container for water. This store gets a bowser of precious water every afternoon from the town, and here the people wait.


The Indian is standing with the heels of his hands pressed down on the counter, and he is watching a black woman, who is bending over a wadge of paper that looks as if it has been torn out of a book. She is reading Anna Karenina. She is reading slowly, mouthing the words. It looks a difficult book. This is a young woman with two little children clutching at her legs. She is pregnant. The Indian is distressed, because the young woman’s headscarf, which should be white, is yellow with dust. Dust lies between her breasts and on her arms. This man is distressed because of the lines of people, all thirsty, but he doesn’t have enough water for them. He is angry because he knows there are people dying out there, beyond the dust clouds.

This man is curious. He says to the young woman: “What are you reading?”

“It is about Russia,” says the girl.

“Do you know where Russia is?” He hardly knows himself.

The young woman looks straight at him, full of dignity, though her eyes are red from dust. “I was best in the class. My teacher said I was best.”

The young woman resumes her reading: she wants to get to the end of the paragraph.

The Indian looks at the two little children and reaches for some Fanta, but the mother says: “Fanta makes them thirsty.”

The Indian knows he shouldn’t do this, but he reaches down to a great plastic container beside him, behind the counter, and pours out two plastic mugs of water, which he hands to the children. He watches while the girl looks at her children drinking, her mouth moving. He gives her a mug of water. It hurts him to see her drinking it, so painfully thirsty is she.

Now she hands over to him a plastic water container, which he fills. The young woman and the children watch him closely so that he doesn’t spill any.

She is bending again over the book. She reads slowly but the paragraph fascinates her and she reads it again.

“Varenka, with her white kerchief over her black hair, surrounded by the children and gaily and good-humouredly busy with them, and at the same time visibly excited at the possibility of an offer of marriage from a man she cared for, Varenka looked very attractive. Koznyshev walked by her side and kept casting admiring glances at her. Looking at her, he recalled all the delightful things he had heard from her lips, all the good he knew about her, and became more and more conscious that the feeling he had for her was something rare, something he had felt but once before, long, long ago, in his early youth. The joy of being near her increased step by step, and at last reached such a point that, as he put a huge birch mushroom with a slender stalk and up-curling top into her basket, he looked into her eyes and, noting the flush of glad and frightened agitation that suffused her face, he was confused himself, and in silence gave her a smile that said too much.”

This lump of print is lying on the counter, together with some old copies of magazines, some pages of newspapers, girls in bikinis.

It is time for her to leave the haven of the Indian store, and set off back along the four miles to her village. Outside, the lines of waiting women clamour and complain. But still the Indian lingers. He knows what it will cost this girl, going back home with the two clinging children. He would give her the piece of prose that so fascinates her, but he cannot really believe this splinter of a girl with her great belly can really understand it.

Why is perhaps a third of Anna Karenina stuck here on this counter in a remote Indian store? It is like this.

A certain high official, United Nations, as it happens, bought a copy of this novel in the bookshop when he set out on his journeys to cross several oceans and seas. On the plane, settled in his business-class seat, he tore the book into three parts. He looked around at his fellow passengers as he did this, knowing he would see looks of shock, curiosity, but some of amusement. When he was settled, his seatbelt tight, he said aloud to whomever could hear: “I always do this when I’ve a long trip. You don’t want to have to hold up some heavy great book.” The novel was a paperback, but, true, it is a long book. This man was used to people listening when he spoke. When people looked his way, curiously or not, he confided in them. “No, it is really the only way to travel.”

When he reached the end of a section of the book, he called the airhostess, and sent it back to his secretary, who was travelling in the cheaper seats. This caused much interest, condemnation, certainly curiosity, every time a section of the great Russian novel arrived, mutilated, but readable, in the back part of the plane.

Meanwhile, down in the Indian store, the young woman is holding on to the counter, her little children clinging to her skirts. She wears jeans, since she is a modern woman, but over them she has put on the heavy woollen skirt, part of traditional garb of her people: her children can easily cling on to it, the thick folds.

She sends a thankful look at the Indian, who she knows likes her and is sorry for her, and she steps out into the blowing clouds. The children have gone past crying, and their throats are full of dust anyway.

This is hard, oh yes, it is hard, this stepping, one foot after another, through the dust that lays in soft deceiving mounds under her feet. Hard, hard – but she is used to hardship, is she not? Her mind is on the story she has been reading. She is thinking: “She is just like me, in her white headscarf, and she is looking after children, too. I could be her, that Russian girl. And the man there, he loves her and will ask her to marry him. (She has not finished more than that one paragraph). Yes, and a man will come for me, and take me away from all this, take me and the children, yes, he will love me and look after me.”

She thinks. My teacher said there was a library there, bigger than the supermarket, a big building, and it is full of books. The young woman is smiling as she moves on, the dust blowing in her face. I am clever, she thinks. Teacher said I am clever. The cleverest in the school. My children will be clever, like me. I will take them to the library, the place full of books, and they will go to school, and they will be teachers – my teacher told me I could be a teacher. They will live far from here, earning money. They will live near the big library and enjoy a good life.

You may ask how that piece of the Russian novel ever ended up on that counter in the Indian store?

It would make a pretty story. Perhaps someone will tell it.

On goes that poor girl, held upright by thoughts of the water she would give her children once home, and drink a little herself. On she goes, through the dreaded dusts of an African drought.

We are a jaded lot, we in our world – our threatened world. We are good for irony and even cynicism. Some words and ideas we hardly use, so worn out have they become. But we may want to restore some words that have lost their potency.

We have a treasure-house of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come up on it. Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be.

We have a bequest of stories, tales from the old storytellers, some of whose names we know, but some not. The storytellers go back and back, to a clearing in the forest where a great fire burns, and the old shamans dance and sing, for our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the spirit world. And that is where it is held, today.

Ask any modern storyteller and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched with fire, with what we like to call inspiration, and this goes back and back to the beginning of our race, to fire and ice and the great winds that shaped us and our world.

The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us – for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is – we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?

I think it is that girl and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.

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2 thoughts on ““A mud hut, but full of books”- Doris Lessing’s Nobel Speech

  1. Pingback: bajinder » Begging for books in times of drought

  2. Pingback: Le Clézio’s Nobel Lecture « a reader’s words

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