It is far easier to collect books than to actually read them. Recently, even the most bookish of my friends report some measure of difficulty in reading a book from start to finish. These are not people who have spent their lives eschewing books. Many of us spent our teenage years lapping up classics with the same intensity we consumed bubble-gum pop. We got through university successfully combing our individual ways through the drivel sprouted at us but now in the mindless haze between our smartphones and our laptops, we have lost our taste for reading, dare I say it, religiously. It may well be the impending pall of old age that has reconfigured our literary bents. After all, these are our mid-late twenties — the brink of veritable antiquity. But something more insidious has conspired to rob of us what we once loved. Somewhere between our smartphones and computers, in the midst of our restlessness, we have foregone depth.
In our relationships, our reading habits, our consumption of news there is now a remarkable lack of depth. Too busy to actually engage with someone or even a complex idea we skim the surface of the world and then retreat back into ourselves only to fall asleep from the exhaustion of it all.
William Powers in his book Hamlet’s BlackBerry underscores well the need for depth in our experiences. “Depth roots us in the world, gives life substance and wholeness. It enriches our work, our relationships, everything we do,” he writes. It takes some measure of psychological and structural adjustment to regain some measure of depth but in the meanwhile the world is changing to accommodate this lack of depth. The news has been reduced to pockets of 140 characters supported by trifling 200-word reports. Books too have not been unaffected by this trend.
The newly released Gareth Cliff on Everything is one such product that has been primed to accommodate for our collective lack of time and disinclination towards depth. This is certainly not an autobiography and it is not meant to be. It is a collection of short pieces on a dizzying array of subjects upon which Cliff weighs his opinion and emerges supreme. This is not a meaty treatise on the philosophy of Gareth Cliff. These are easily readable chunks of opinion bound together by the force of Cliff’s personality. And while it is easily readable, and in parts very well written it is not always agreeable.
When I was first approached to write a review on this book, I immediately felt repulsed. I am no fan of Cliff. I last listened to him on radio when he anchored the afternoon show on Radio 702. Yes, that long ago. I do not follow him on Twitter but every now and then suffer the misfortune of seeing an errant retweet from him. I eventually accepted the offer to review the book because I believe in the little cliques we form online, we suffer the danger of insulating ourselves from thoughts and opinion that bruise us or just plainly take an opposing view to ours.
The blurb on the book warns that this is a book that will “engage, enrage and derange” you all at once. I picked up this book carefully, well aware that I would not be nodding my head in fawning approval of Cliff but I was ready to try to understand him better. Early on, Cliff reveals that his impatience with religion runs so deep that he cannot take anybody who is an adherent to any religion seriously. What is clear however is that Gareth has swopped religion for self-righteousness. I don’t deny that he does sometimes make sense but too often his views are couched in a saucy superiority but in a piece titled, “Getting the house in order”, he concedes his fallibility. “I’ve never imagined for a second that I was perfect. I know I’m full of stupidity, occasional myopia and some prejudice, but that doesn’t mean I’m not capable of correcting myself,” he says.
He proceeds to offer an apology to Thabo Mbeki, Cindy Nell, the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Blade Nzimande, Helen Zille, his co-worker Damon Kalvari, Alec Erwin, Idols contestants and anybody else he may have once incensed. It may be a turgid apology but I thought it was a refreshing admission of his own humanity.
Fear not, however, any good will that the apology does extend is easily balanced out by a number of other questionable views Cliff expresses of women, fat people and those he deems stupid. This is a book that Cliff’s fans should read in fitting worship of their hero. It is also a book Cliff’s detractors should read. There is nothing particularly engaging, enraging or deranging in this book. It’s just all Gareth Cliff.
This book, through no fault of its own, or indeed Gareth Cliff, is however a sad indictment of human life today. We have forsaken the complexity of depth for easy opinion — my own included.
* This is the first stop in a “blog tour” organised by representatives of Jonathon Ball Publishers. The writer received a complimentary copy of the book for purposes of this review.