This is a review of a book written to promote the importance of books and reading.
Even if you don’t work with words or are not a self-interested writer like me, it is well-worth reading – if you are a bibliophile, you already agree with many of the points the authors make, but their reasoning, experience and arguments may challenge or change your thinking.
High levels of literacy help communities function well – and in this era of ‘digital natives’ we need to encourage reading for meaning and understanding, taking the time to absorb, contemplate, question, perhaps transform…
Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!, a lovely ‘thank you’ gift from Denise, a student in my Writing Creatively Class at Chelsea, who knows all about the value of reading, being a retired Primary School teacher and a current volunteer teacher of ESL at U3A.
Grab a Tea or a Coffee – This is Reading Not Skimming…
As a writer, and a teacher of creative writing and life stories and legacies, I may not be the target audience for the publishers – that would be preaching to the converted – however, I enjoyed the essays immensely, gleaned some wonderful quotes and ideas for prompts to use in class, and have excellent fodder for debate if anyone challenges the importance of reading, not just for knowledge, but also for pleasure.
This book is also a timely reminder to reflect on the value of novels, poetry and the range of non-fiction literature that helps our society to progress.
Maybe give you a break from working out what is ‘fake’ news and what is real!
The essays give insight into the lives of the writers as they explain how important reading and books have been and still are to their personal growth and their professional development.
Journeys fascinating and enjoyable – some poignant, others humorous, all interesting.
The importance of literacy and literature is a conversation we need to have, especially in the digital age where so much of learning is now visual. Instant gratification expected but not always achieved.
Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! published in 2011, in the UK by Vintage, after a report revealed:
“that there are thousands of children across Britain who cannot read competently…One in three teenagers reads only two books a year, or fewer, and one in six children rarely reads books outside of the classroom. Many parents do not read stories to their children, and many homes do not have books in them…”
If you keep up with reports regarding literacy in Australia, the issues raised in this book merit discussion in 2018, especially since the writers touch on how and what we are taught to read as well as the benefits of reading widely.
Reflecting what language and literature, plus books and reading mean to you personally, your family, and to our culture, should be done often – especially in our “fast-moving, dislocated technology-obsessed world.”
My passion for words, writing and reading no secret. I’m glad I also influenced my husband to read more for pleasure as well as his job-related material because when he became very ill, reading and discussing books something we could still do together.
As a parent, I attended workshops about reading and writing, volunteered in the school library, reading recovery programmes and encouraged my children to love books just like my parents did for me.
Unashamedly the family ‘bookworm’, I’ve produced two bookworms!
Most of my close friends are just as passionate about books and reading as I am, but living in this ‘mutual admiration society’, it is easy to forget there are lots of people who don’t read.
Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!, may not specifically be aimed at people like me but I think it relies on and encourages all bibliophiles to become proselytisers, to exhort as many people as possible to read a book, be inspired, and become an ambassador for reading:
“The book is a manifesto. In a year of rude awakening to low levels of literacy and a widespread apathy towards books and reading, this book demands an interruption… these essays… aim to convince you to make reading part of your daily life.”
I recognised many but not all of the contributors.
The ten essays by award-winning and lauded writers, researchers and industry professionals in science, technology, and publishing are as varied as their writing and professional life.
But they are all advocates of the transformative power of reading whether to encourage you to see different perspectives, introduce different worlds and ideas, entertain, improve knowledge, relieve loneliness, soothe a troubled soul and enrich living.
However, perhaps the book’s appeal could have been expanded if some genre or ‘populist’ authors had been included so that when the blurb or inside pages are scanned it won’t be dismissed as ‘too academic or highbrow’.
The essays are all well-written and rich in revealing the layers of a single book, story or poem have an impact, influence, power, perspective, resonance, and can be a trigger for remembering…
As usual, I wear several hats:
- as a reader and lover of books
- as an essayist interested in writing style, content and engagement
- as a teacher of creative writing interested in the use of language, the application of craft techniques, references and evidence of research
- as a teacher of life stories believing in the power of story, seeking the authenticity of personal experience, language and style, use of quotes, the books and research referenced, the emotional impact of the story
- as a writer and a poet passionate about words who wants to be immersed in different worlds and awed by images, language, clever use of words and the senses
Read a novel… to travel in time and space… quicken your sense of ordinary existence… Read a poem… it might help you uncover and articulate a thought or a feeling previously buried deep… Read a story… it imposes a unique period of peace and concentration into your busy life… Read out loud, to your children, to a partner… reading together casts a potent and intimate spell…
The Contributors – A Stellar Line-Up!
Zadie Smith authored the novels: White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty and NW, as well as The Embassy of Cambodia and a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. She is the editor of The Book of Other People, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and listed as one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and again in 2013.
White Teeth won multiple literary awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. The Autograph Man won The Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction and The Commonwealth Writers’ Best Book Award (Eurasia Section)
Zadie’s essay Library Life shares her journey from a bookish, working-class, immigrant family and extols the virtues of libraries, their importance to marginalised sections of our community, and their necessity in helping to establish some sort of equity in society:
It has always been, and always will be, very difficult to explain to people with money what it means not to have money. If education matters to you, they ask, and if libraries matter to you, well, why wouldn’t you be willing to pay for them if you value them?
They are the kind of people who believe value can only be measured in money, at the extreme end of which logic lies the dangerous idea that people who do not generate a lot of money for their families cannot possibly value their families as people with money do…
Like many people without a lot of money, we relied on our public services… as a necessary gateway to better opportunities… paid our taxes… to establish shared institutions from which all might benefit equally.
This essay reminded me of being at university in 1971, only there because I won a Commonwealth Scholarship despite being one of only 500 students throughout Australia chosen by the Australian National University in a pilot program designed for those most likely to succeed academically. My migrant parents had six children and no way could they find money to send me to university, never mind support me living away from home!
The scholarship paid fees and gave a modest $22 a week living allowance but no book allowance. I lived on campus for $21.50 a week, food and board only. I can’t remember if I even got the 50cents to spend!
Needless to say, the campus library was my second home.
Thank goodness, it was one of the best-resourced university libraries in Australia, and I got to know the staff very well, pestering them for books and always being the last to be chased out the door each evening.
Blake Morrison is the author of bestselling memoirs, And When Did You Last See Your Father? (winner of the J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography and the Esquire Award for Non-Fiction) and Things My Mother Never Told Me. He wrote a study of the Bulger case, As If and the novels South of the River and The Last Weekend. He is a poet, critic, journalist and librettist.
Blake’s essay Twelve Thoughts About Reading covers almost everything reading and books can mean to people but also to those who write them. There is plenty of food for thought and discussion.
In The Great Escape, he illustrates how ‘lives are transformed by books.’ They can influence your choices and what direction your life takes. Books can be a ladder to freedom.
In Giving and Taking, he states ‘All writing depends on the generosity of the reader.’ And in Ownership, he argues ‘once it is out there in the world, the book has a life of its own: Authors may flinch and protest… but they have to let go.”
In Ownership: an extreme case of appropriation, Blake tells a story from the memoirs of Tobias Wolff when as a young writer “Found guilty of plagiarism and of bringing the school into disrepute, Wolff is expelled. yet he commits his crime in all innocence… an extreme case of a common phenomenon: reading as ownership, reading as appropriation. As Horace said, ‘Change the name and the story is about you.’ ”
I haven’t read Wolff’s memoir but even the teaser mentioned in Blake’s essay would initiate a very lively debate among writers. Methinks it is a case of what is omitted is more interesting than what is shared!
Blake teaches creative writing in London and in Daring to say ‘I‘, explains most of his students are life writers, working in prose, however, “the poets and life writers have something important in common: the use of the first-person pronoun. Speaking in one’s own voice – ‘daring to say I’, as one student put it – is no easy thing.”
In Blake’s thoughts Why poetry matters and Another reason why poetry matters he talks about reading poetry as solace and refuge (a point expanded by contributor Jane Davis). Its association “with profundity – with the uttering of thoughts that lie too deep for tears.”
He warns that early drafts must be reworked and shaped. “The therapeutic element in writing doesn’t come from pouring things out or ‘washing your dirty linen in public’, but in finding the right words, ordering the experience, and making the story available to others.”
In Reading catatonically Blake quotes Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built and reminds us there are times in life when losing yourself in a book helps us cope.
Blake prefers to read in solitude and quietness but in Company and solitude, he observes that “literature creates a sense of companionship… we meet characters… And as a result, we feel less lonely.” He also acknowledges the importance of sharing a book with others, especially if you have enjoyed it!
His thoughts Forbidden pleasure, and The canon, almost flipsides of the same coin. “Forbidden is the keyword. Just as some of the most powerful books ever written have been samizdat (works banned…) so the experience of reading is often most intense when it is surreptitious – when we feel we shouldn’t be doing it…”
Regarding set texts and books the literati say are must-reads, Blake admits “Some books are simply better than others. Or last the course longer. Or grow richer the more they are reread.” And the canon is ever changing or should be…
Blake’s final thought, The more, the merrier the mantra of writers and publishers regarding books “We’ve no investment in keeping them to ourselves. Let the whole world have them. The world will be better for it. And the words will remain the same.”
Carmen Callil, born and educated in Melbourne left for the UK in 1960. In 1972, she founded Virago Press and ten years later became Managing Director of Chatto & Windus. In 1996, she chaired the judging panel of the Booker Prize. She is the author (with Colm Toibin) of The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English since 1950 and the highly acclaimed Bad Faith.
Carmen’s essay True Daemons truly engrossing, and triggered memories of childhood reading choices and the influence the different reading habits of parents can have and is forthright declaring, “Books are shields against a terror of boredom, the curse of most childhoods… if the human race was separated from words and thoughts and stories, it would die.”
She touches on the digital revolution in the publishing world,
“A machine can never look like a book: books are far more beautiful. Books are like gardens; a Kindle or an iPad like a supermarket – it makes life easier, but one doesn’t want to loiter in it. You can fiddle with books. Like gardens, they can be wonderful to look at. You can cuddle them and use them like a hot-water bottle; a machine can’t do any of these things…
… 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.”
Tim Parks lives in Milan after moving to Italy in 1980. Author of novels, non-fiction and essays, including – Destiny, Europa, Cleaver, A Season with Verona, An Italian Education, Dreams of Rivers and Seas, Teach Us to Sit Still and Italian Neighbours. He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Betty Trask Prize, The John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the John Florio Prize and the Italo Calvino Prize.
Tim’s essay, Mindful Reading, explores why we read certain books – in childhood, they are often chosen for us, also chosen in school; then there’s peer pressure, being sucked in by marketing hype and the desire to be fashionable – “Can’t remember the name of the author. Who cares?”
He reminds us of the importance of context, the wonder of enchantment, the pleasure of awareness, the rhythm of language, the power of words to enthral and most importantly, “You have every right to put a book down after a couple of pages, which is why it’s always wise to read a little before buying. Life is simply too short for the wrong books, or even the right books at the wrong time.”
Ah, yes – we all have those piles of TBR books by the bed or in the study! Or, ones started but never finished and we guiltily cling to them, telling ourselves they will be read ‘one day…’.
Mark Haddon is an author, illustrator and screenwriter who has written fifteen books for children and won two BAFTAs. His bestselling novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won seventeen literary prizes, including the Whitbread Award. His poetry collection, The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea, was published by Picador in 2005, and his last novel, The Red House, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2012. His most recent title is short story collection The Pier Falls.
Melbournians are currently being entertained by a stage adaptation of Mike’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and his essay The Right Words in the Right Order is as memorable as the title of his novel.
The essay is refreshing in its honesty. He contradicts many of the statements the others say. Despite having award-winning children’s novels to read at twelve he can only remember avidly devouring Erich von Daniken’s pseudoscientific overhyped Chariot of the Gods! and books about man’s fossil ancestors.
This reminded me of being a teenager at home with my brothers in the kitchen as one read passages from von Daniken’s book. In the discussion that followed we offended my mother by poking fun at claims in the Bible. Of course, the claims in Chariot of the Gods questionable but the style of the writing a lot more readable than the King James Bible.
When Mark started reading ‘proper adult novels… The words remained inky shapes on the paper…” he didn’t understand ‘the importance of taste and timing‘ and that ‘a vital part of loving literature is hating certain books and certain writers… “
For Mark, writers must push boundaries, love language and be humane and generous even with flawed characters. Virginia Woolf captures ‘the texture of life itself‘ like no other writer. He can’t read Chekhov or Flaubert in English without feeling that he’s ‘missing something of vital importance, rather as if I were listening to a symphony rescored for piano.’
He challenges the assumption that reading has a special power to soothe the troubled mind… “when my mind is troubled, like many people, I find reading hard, if not impossible, and fiction, in particular, becomes a country from which I feel painfully exiled…”
Mark acknowledges the speed of technological change but praises Faber’s iPad app of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land –
which includes a filmed performance of the poem by Fiona Shaw, synchronised readings by Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sir Alec Guinness and Viggo Mortensen, original manuscript pages, academic interviews… It is the most wonderful thing…
Books can piggyback on these huge technological changes in a way that other art forms can’t, because they’re digital, and have been from way before Gutenberg, a string of symbols, that can be transmitted in any medium.
One of my daughters was recently commissioned to do artwork for a company in Melbourne that makes short films to explore classic texts on the school curriculum. The approach to Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein, one I am sure will not only enliven the experience for the students but open the possibilities for teachers to encourage fabulous discussions.
Embracing the digital age in this way extends and not limits, the relevance of books.
Michael Rosen was Children’s Laureate 2007-09 and is well-known in the children’s book world. A poet, performer, broadcaster and scriptwriter, he visits schools with his one-man show to enthuse children with his passion for books and poetry. As an author and by selecting other writers’ works for anthologies he has been involved with over 140 books. He lectures and teaches in universities on children’s literature, reading and writing and set up The Children’s Funny Prize which gives awards to the funniest children’s books of the year.
Michael’s essay, Memories and Expectations, I found delightful and warm as he illustrated the pleasure of reading aloud and the power of a story to stay with you when you identify with or recognise the characters. Stories by writer Charles Dickens rich with memorable characters.
Michael remembers his local library as ‘a place that opened a window on the world and a door to a future life away from the area.’
He related how his parents quoted and referred to characters in the novels as the family went about their daily routine. It wasn’t necessarily an accurate quote but the essence suited the situation. This made me smile because my dad often quoted characters from RL Stevenson novels especially Long John Silver from Treasure Island. We knew a situation was dire when he’d say, “Them that dies will be the lucky ones!’
We learn a lot about Michael and his father in the essay, and his family.
“Part of the power of stories is the way in which we can see facets of this or that fictional person in the people we know, and scenes for the fictional world have echoes in the events of the real world.”
Jane Davis is the Director and founder of The Reader Organisation (TRO), a national charity dedicated to bringing about a reading revolution by making it possible for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to enjoy and engage with literature on a deep and personal level. Their ‘Get Into Reading’ read-aloud groups reach people who may not otherwise read, including people living in deprived areas, the mentally or chronically ill, older people living in Care Homes, prisoners, recovering addicts and excluded children. The organisation started on Merseyside but has since expanded across the UK and beyond. Jane enjoyed writing as a hobby for a number of years but gave up her full-time job to dedicate more time to it and published the novel Half-truths & White Lies.
Jane’s essay The Reading Revolution details the history of the group she founded based on people being prepared to read aloud in an inexpert, exploratory way.
… the text, poem, novel, short story, play or whatever is read aloud, in its entirety, by one or more members of the group. The group talks about the book as it is read, freely interrupting the flow of the reading, with personal responses… a short poem might take half an hour, a short story two hours, War And Peace eighteen months.‘
The proceeds of Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! go to Jane’s organisation and shared reading is now mainstream. It is not just for the sick, unhappy or economically deprived people in institutions.
Jane argues a compelling case for shared reading – a reading revolution –
We must reposition literature in settings – such as workplaces, mental-health services, dementia care homes, looked-after children services – where its profound worth will be seen for what it really is: the holder of human value, human meaning, and, yes, even the secrets of the universe…
When I started the public Readings By The Bay I was astounded by the response and how hungry people were to share their poems and prose, but also to sit and listen to others read aloud. Sadly, Mordialloc Writers as a group is no more but there is a wealth of places now in Melbourne where you can go and read and listen to others read.
Jeanette Winterson OBE authored ten novels including The Passion, Sexing the Cherry and Written on the Body, a book of short stories, The World and Other Places, a collection of essays, Art Objects as well as many other works, including children’s books, screenplays and journalism. Her writing has won the Whitbread Award for Best First Novel, the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, the E. M. Forster Award and the Prix d’argent at Cannes Film Festival. In her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit based on her own upbringing she placed herself as a fictional character. She scripted the novel into a BAFTA-winning BBC drama and later re-visited that material in her bestselling memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? She writes regularly for the Guardian.
Jeanette’s essay, A Bed. A Book. A Mountain, a beautifully crafted piece using reading Nan Shepherd’s book, The Living Mountain, ‘a geo-poetic exploration of the Cairngorms’ as a metaphor to prove ‘There is no substitute for reading.’
‘A book lets you follow a writer’s mind,‘ states Jeanette. ‘Books work from the inside out. They are a private conversation happening somewhere in the soul.’
Jeanette is quite adamant that “Attention Deficit Disorder is not a disease; it is a consequence of not reading. Teach a child to read and keep that child reading and you will change everything. And yes, I mean everything.”
As I mentioned before there is plenty in this book to start discussions, incite debates, and keep dinner conversations interesting! She justifies her assertion about ADD –
The consequences of homogenised mass culture plus the failure of our education system and our contenpt 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.
A trained mind is a mind that can concentrate…
Reading stills the body for a while, allowing rest without torpor and quiet without passivity. Reading is not a passive act. Engaged in the book, in company with the writer, the mind can roam where it will. Such freedom to roam reminds us that body and mind both need exercise and activity and that neither the mind nor the body can cope with confinement.
And if the body has to cope with confinement, then all the more reason to have developed a mind that knows how to roam.
Nicholas Carr writes about technology, culture, and economics. He is the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize nominee and a New York Times bestseller, but also wrote The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008) and Does IT Matter? (2004). His books have been translated into more than 20 languages. (www.nicholascarr.com)
In his essay, The Dreams of Readers, Nicholas admits his ‘life has been punctuated by books.’ Boyhood favourites opened frontiers ‘ to wander in and marvel at far beyond my suburban surroundings.’ The ‘tumult’ of teenage ‘put into perspective‘ by a variety of books and then in his twenties some ‘were the wedges‘ he used ‘to prise open new ways of seeing and feeling.’
What a way with words!
I must explore his reading list and perhaps his word power and engaging use of words will rub off!
Pondering all the books and poems that have made an impact on me, I agree with his statement: ‘Who would I be without these books? Someone else.’
A great part of Carr’s essay deals with the effect on our mind when we read stories, he cites the work of cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto and his colleagues whose experiments suggest that ‘the emotions stirred by literature can even alter, in subtle but real ways, people’s personalities.’
Another researcher Nicholas quotes is Norman Holland, a former scholar at McKnight Brain Institute, at the University of Florida, who argues the mind we read with “is a different mind from the one we use to navigate the real world. In our day-to-day lives, we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings…
But when we open a book our expectations and our attitudes change drastically. because we understand that ‘we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions.’, we are relieved of our desire to exert influence over objects and people and hence are able to ‘disengage our (cognitive) systems for initiating actions.’ That frees us to become absorbed in the imaginary world of the literary work.”
Dr Maryanne Wolf & Dr Mirit Barzillai
Dr Maryanne Wolf & Dr Mirit Barzillai. Dr Wolf is the Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in the US, and an Associate Professor of Child Development. She is the author of Proust and the Squid and has published hundreds of articles on reading and learning disabilities. Dr Mirit Barzillai, I assume is her colleague.
The final essay by Maryanne and Mirit is Questions for a Reader and begins with the assertion already covered by some of the other contributors. “Reading transforms the human brain, which transforms the mind, which transforms the life of every reader.”
They make the point:
“We were never born to read or write anything. Unlike vision or language, reading has no genetic programme that unfolds to create an ideal form of itself…
… learning to read lies outside the original repertoire of the human brain’s functions and requires a whole new circuit to be buily afresh with each new reader.”
A scientific explanation that explains why each child is different. Some struggle to read and others don’t… some enjoy it, others don’t… and
“The specific factors that affect the formation of the reading circuits take on special significance… as we move from a literacy-based culture to one dominated by digital tools and a digital sense of time.
Immersed and shaped anew by varied technological mediums, the reading brain as we know it will be changed and to some degree supplanted by a different reading circuit.“
We are still going through this historical transition period and we must ask critical questions now ‘before the reading brains of the next generation are fully altered.”
We have all read warnings about the time children spend ‘on screen’, the alarm that perhaps their first reading experience is with an iPad, the substitution of films of books in schools instead of requiring the reading of the text, the difference reading on screen to hard copy can make to memory and understanding.
There are myriad arguments for and against but many educators and literacy experts are concerned, including our own celebrated children’s author Mem Fox.
Maryanne and Mirit refer to Socrates, Proust and cognitive neuroscience and remind us to be unquestioning and that there are ‘no pat answers’…and ‘Technological innovation is critical to all of us if we are to advance… It is clear that today’s children, not tomorrow’s, require a new set of intellectual tools and capacities if they are to become productive members of their culture.’
Lots to think about in this book – definitely worth stopping what you are doing to read.