When I studied French at school, one of the books we read was the classic Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and I remember still my slight feeling of perplexment about why we were reading what seemed, to all intents and purposes, a simple children’s book. I was an avid reader as a child, as my parents will testify, and was used to tearing my way voraciously through lengthy novels; I could understand that we might need to read something a little simpler in a foreign language which we were still learning … but really? A children’s book?
Le Petit Prince, of course, is not really a children’s book at all, but an opportunity to reflect on the absurdities of the human race – a realisation which I acquired to a limited extent while studying the book, but which it took me several years more really to appreciate, and which coincided with my (still dawning) understanding that reading is an art best indulged in slowly. Reading quickly still serves me very well in most of my working life, from board papers to books containing intriguing perspectives on ideas about how the world/humanity/education/society/business could function better, many of which occupy my bookshelves. When faced in my holiday reading with the recommendation from a friend of a beautiful book like The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, however, to read quickly would be entirely disrespectful, and a deeper savouring is not just recommended – it is obligatory.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is an indulgence in the senses, from the texture of the cover to the size and weight of the pages, and from the fluid ink drawings to the simple – and profound – words and interactions. There is no plot, no thesis, no structured plan for action … it offers itself to the reader as an enticing and compelling world which has a moral framework, but in which we must engage and allow our imaginations to meld and mesh with the words and pictures in order to create meaning. I laughed and felt sad, and when I had ‘finished’, I knew I had only scratched the surface and am already drawn to return. Slow reading uncovers, gently, meaning, I am (still) discovering.
Upon revisiting Le Petit Prince recently, on a trip down memory lane, I was surprised to see that it contained many more words than I had remembered. The core simplicity of the messages, though, had remained with me throughout all those years. Fewer words, deeper meaning … maybe that was one of the most important lessons of all from my French studies at school.