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2. Why Read?

Do you remember that fad for ‘brain training’ that was around a few years ago? The one that had people scurrying around doing sudoku and word games, like nine-year-olds on long car journeys? It seemed to work on the assumption that by repetitively toughening up little corners of your mind – doing press-ups for the memory – you would become more functional up top. Its theory was that having a happy brain meant knowing where you left your keys, or remembering not to leave your mobile in the pub. Nothing that couldn’t be done with a series of strategically placed Post-it notes. Welcome to your 21st-century brain: all very neat, but paying no attention to what wasn’t there – to the imagination. You know: thinking.

And this is where reading comes in: cliches about explaining the world and explaining our common humanity; about seeing new things, or the old things in new ways. A well-written book is one that is convincing enough to make something inherently false – symbols scratched on parchment – into something that feels real enough to make you push on, sometimes obsessively, to find out what happens. What happens. Not what language is describing, but what is actually happening to these figments. Fiction is a grand and glorious lie that we will ourselves to believe. And the brilliant part is that it’s not just the loner with the word-processor who’s responsible: the creation also happens inside your head. Words go in, worlds come out. ‘But they’ve got her voice wrong’, you can say about a televised adaptation. Just start an argument about film casting for a popular book. Reading is mine.

Okay, it’s yours, too, but that’s another wonderful part: there’s no overlap. For once, unlike everything else – unlike being ‘a team player’ at work, unlike needing another half dozen people for a game of basketball, unlike the strangeness of eating alone, going to a cinema alone, or standing at a gig alone (pretend you’re reviewing it, that’s my advice), reading is fabulously selfish.

That’s why it’s not just inter-hobby bullying to pick on the puzzle-book brigade, and to compare a four-thousand-year-old cultural essential with something you can find on the back pages of the Daily Mail. They’re both deeply individual past-times. You can do them anywhere at any time, as the lust takes you, with no more planning than remembering to shove a few bits of paper into your bag. Even a film can pin you down and demand two hours of your life in one go. But I don’t have two hours, not now, not while I’m waiting for this bus, not while I’m waiting for this kettle to boil. Fine then, says the movie, you’ll get nothing from me.

Your own times, your own terms, and your own world, too. A lot to ask, but books can do it, and all it takes to get there is a trip to a library, a bookshop, a friend’s shelves, a dusty attic, a market stall…

There are more reasons – more than those mentioned here, and more than those mentioned in the other columns in this series – there will always be more reasons, as long as there continue to be more books. And books will carry on appearing until people stop wanting to tell stories. And that won’t happen as long as there’s someone left to tell them to.

So whether it’s beside the cereal at breakfast, wedged into a corridor on a train journey, curled in an armchair on a Sunday afternoon or in the midnight minutes before switching off the lamp at night, I’d not let go of my books for all the sudoku in the world.

Alec Johnson

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