It is the ideas and stories that count

Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!
by various authors

Slightly meanly, I think, the publisher has not credited anyone as the editor of this collection of essays on the topic of reading. Even the introduction is simply signed “Vintage Books, 2011”. I bought this book on a whim at the same time as The Library Book, as they were both pretty and colourful and contained essays by interesting people.

Foyles haul

I think it’s probably not surprising, then, that my reaction to this book is very similar to my reaction to The Library Book. Hit and miss. But perhaps to more of an extreme in this case. The hits had me nodding my head furiously, while the misses in some cases had me furious.

I like that the 10 essays are not only written by big names. They include novelists, poets, publishers, journalists, academics and the founder of a charity, the Reader Organisation. And the wide topic allowed them to take very different angles. Blake Morrison writes intelligently and profoundly about the pleasures and benefits of reading, including why poetry matters:

“It takes courage to own up to dark thoughts and dangerous feelings. But poetry – the most intimate yet public of forums – is the ideal place. Ted Hughes is one writer who recognised this. Writing, he said, was about facing up to what we were too scared to face – about saying what we would prefer not to say, but desperately need to share.”

This illustrates what my favourite of these essays do well – they quote widely, creating a whole reading list for me within their few pages of eloquent argument. Carmen Callil writes interestingly about books in her life and how being a woman in a man’s world led her to found Virago. She shows a great, warm love for books. Tim Parks, in contrast, goes negative. He generalises the average westerner as someone who either doesn’t read or only reads the latest big title:

“If we read fast, superficially, for plot, to get through, so as to congratulate ourselves…we’re not only missing out on certain pleasures, we’re actually putting ourselves at risk, leaving ourselves open to messages and attitudes we haven’t weighed up…”

Not only is this quite ungenerous, not to say judgemental, but I also think it’s wrong. Different books have different effects on us and who is he or I to tell someone that they shouldn’t read a certain book because we didn’t get anything from it? Thankfully Mark Haddon says entirely the opposite:

“This, I think, does a disservice both to readers and to the books themselves…because it’s not true. Visit a prison library and you’ll meet good people whose lives have been saved by potboilers, and psychopaths reading Jane Austen.”

But Haddon also writes intuitively about the act of reading itself:

“Stop reading right now. Look around you…The sense of being inside looking out, of seeing a world that belongs to everyone, but is nevertheless yours alone. It is this uncrossable gulf between me and not-me, between my private experiences and yours, which lies at the heart of being human and which no other medium can touch, and this border is where the novel lives and moves and has its being.”

And then Jeanette Winterson went and ruined it by returning to Parks’ snobbery and turning it up to 11. She goes from praising the King James Bible and Shakespeare to:

“We live under 24/7 saturation bombing from an enervated mass media and a bogus manufactured popular culture. If you don’t read you will likely be watching telly, or on the computer, or listening to fake music from puppet-show bands…The consequences of homogenised mass culture plus the failure of our education system and our contempt for books and art (it’s either entertainment or elitist, never vital and democratic), mean that not reading cuts off the possibility of private thinking, or of a trained mind, or of a sense of self not dependent on external factors…Attention Deficit Disorder is not a disease; it is a consequence of not reading.”

What?!! There is so much wrong with these statements. That last sentence…whooah! Has she ever expounded her theory to a doctor or ADHD specialist? I’d be interested to hear their response! I mean, I think reading is important and rewarding, but that really is taking it too far. And as for her comments on modern pop culture, well that’s her own personal taste and to extrapolate from her dislike to such disparagement is unkind and even ignorant. Music can transport me, make my heart race and my emotions surge – and I don’t mean classical music here, I mean rock, folk, dance and pop music. Not every song, or course, but plenty that I am sure Winterson would turn her nose up at. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare was the pop culture of his day.

I think in general it is a stubborn clinging to the past that frustrated me. A few of the essayists write about how the physical printed book is intrinsically better than ebooks, and how new technology and mass media threaten today’s youth and therefore the entire world. Personal preference is one thing, but I think we have to face up to the fact that we live in an age of transition and be positive about the possibilities the future offers. The final essay by Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai addresses this well:

“The Greek transition from an oral culture to a literacy-based culture provides a valuable analogue…Socrates argued that the seeming permanence of the printed word would delude the young into thinking they had accessed the essence of some aspect of knowledge, rather than simply decoded it…Will [today’s] young people immersed in technological innovation become adept at prioritising, sorting and critically evaluating information, adapting different types of reading styles based upon their purpose…Will the flexibility of digital text actually enhance the reading experience for many readers, propelling them into a deeper engagement with text, or will such enhancements serve as further distraction?”

I accept that my own preference for reading novels in hard copy is a product of my life to date, but I didn’t exactly dislike my brief dalliances with a borrowed Kindle and I absorb most of my journalistic writing via computer these days. I think a love of music, film, TV, comedy and theatre complements my love of reading, rather than detracting from it (though I won’t deny that they are all competing for my time). I think reading is important, valuable and worth encouraging in others but it is not about to disappear. As Callil says in her essay:

“The human race has been telling stories, and trying to record them on papyrus, on manuscripts, on stones, since the beginning of time. Whether we read on the printed page or on a machine is beside the point. It is the ideas and stories that count.”

Published 2011 by Vintage.