Blessed are the givers of books

7th July 2000 at 01:00
DURING my schooldays, if Catholic pupils in the west of Scotland spent any time at all on what our Protestant friends used to call "Bible studies", it was on the New Testament and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Catholic schools, when they weren't drilling their pupils in the catechism, for the most part left the Old Testament to their Proddy counterparts.

What I didn't realise at the time was that I was also being affected by the influence of a more secular evangelist. I associated the name Andrew Carnegie with two things - wealth and books.

"Who do you think I am, Carnegie?" would be the agitated parental response to a child's request to purchase some item or other. I also visited, at least once a week, a library with the same name. From the age of seven up to my late teens I probably read an average of two "recreational" books per week, usually fiction, a word-rate never since equalled .

My tastes were mainstream, beginning with the Hardy Boys (although never Nancy Drew),

G A Henty's historical stories, the "Lone Ranger" series, and then leading on to Stevenson and Dickens, Hemingway, Steinbeck and other "classic novels".

Like other people of that time I would often struggle through a novel to the end even if I wasn't enjoying it, just because I felt that it was "good" to read literature - The Mayor of Casterbridge to name but one example.

The upshot of this period of intense reading, allied to what I was obliged to do at school, was to provide me with some appreciation of the use of language, especially the written word, and to lay down the foundations of an impressive (I have been told) font of general knowledge. My experience was not untypical of many people of the same age.

The man who provided the money to build my precious book resource funded another 2,810 libraries, motivated by his own self-styled "gospel of wealth", which called on very rich people to ensure that what they couldn't take with them was put to good use when they went.

Fortunately for a lot of people, myself included, the Dunfermline-born Scot had enough of a social conscience to decide that his wealth would be used to benfit others. His motives for giving so much of his fortune to the cause of education and "culture" may have had their origins in a combination of noblesse oblige and the guilt he may have felt as a successful capitalist who made his money out of the misery of thousands of his workers in Pittsburgh. His first millions were also associated with misery of a more final sort: he built railways for the North during the Civil War.

Perhaps it was his experience of the war that later made him an outspoken and unlikely supporter of education rights for blacks. It was appropriate that the famous concert hall he endowed in New York played a major part in bringing recognition to the role of black men and women in developing jazz and blues when John Hammond produced the historic "From Spirituals to Swing" concerts in 1938 and 1939 - a far musical cry from the Carnegie Hall's inaugural concert more than 40 years earlier, at which Tchaikovsky conducted some of his own compositions.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York was set up in 1911 with a capital fund of $135 million to be used for "the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding". In my case one outcome out of two was not a bad result. In June last year the corporation was valued at $169 billion and was allocating grants of around $60 million every year.

I suppose the nearest we have today to a Carnegie is Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The technological expertise required to take advantage of Mr Gates's products is fast becoming the equivalent of the basic educational skills that Carnegie targeted a century ago. This is especially the case in Third World countries.

As far as I know Microsoft is not yet a supporter of the Global Campaign for Education, a coalition of charities, development groups and teachers' unions which exists to put pressure on governments and global institutions to bring education to the poorest countries of the world. If he is, then great, and if he isn't, then he should be.

I like to think that the computing Carnegie of this century will emulate the Great Benefactor of the last - even if, unlike Andrew, there wasn't an apostle called Bill.

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