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Posts from the ‘Themes’ Category

27. Why Read?

I have what can only be referred to as Magical Realism Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which gives me the great pleasure of thrilling highs while I’m in the throes of a Louis de Bernieres, and a crushing, soul-destroying depression when I’m not.  I scour bookshops, and paw at the covers of books that promise a journey into the deepest jungles of South America, where I might learn how to cast spells from a 300-year-old Indian and where it’s totally normal to have a giant black jaguar as a pet.  The compulsion finds me boring through a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the detriment of my social life and personal relationships – you, my dear, can’t give me anything this book cannot.  It’s a deeply personal obsession.

I’ve thought a lot about why I dive so deeply into books, especially those of magical realism, and why when I think about getting lost in one, I think of a wardrobe, doors through which I escape into another world.  Perhaps the image of a wardrobe relates to a room in a house where a family reside, and it seems the most simple reason for my reading is to explore familial situations I’ve never had the joy of experiencing.  In books like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Of Love and Shadows, I find great comfort in exploring the stories of storied families who have survived for generations on grit and honour.

As I build up in my head my desire for a family, and whether or not it is something I’ll ever really have, these books deliver me into the bosom of a mother who was never actually there, and impart on me words of wisdom from an overbearing father who doesn’t spend his time searching for his own answers at the bottom of the bottle.  In books like The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, I raise a gaggle of children who tug at my shirt tails and climb onto my shoulders as I prepare dinner, and who I boil in a bath of tea so they go to bed smelling of peppermint.  I build a home with my bare hands and spend years turning it into a home that I will pass on to my children, who will live with me there until I push them away because of my cloying love, and who will return because they can’t live without it.

Books introduce us to authors with hopes and dreams and fears just like ours.  In my case, and as with any Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, my voracious appetite for books is borne of a void.  Each time I read a novel exploring the intricacies of family life and of love, the void feels a little less big, the pills of truth easier to swallow because of the inebriating effects of magical realism.

Josh Rivers

Book Club Spy Abroad: Edinburgh Book Festival


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Edinburgh Book Festival 2015: Waking the Wuduwasa

The first literary event I attended at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival was a three-way talk given by actor Mark Rylance, writer Paul Kingsnorth, and ‘mythologist’ Martin Shaw, who gave a rolling rambling performance on England in the 11th century. Kingsnorth was promoting his book The Wake, which Rylance has apparently bought the film rights for. It is set in East Anglia in the 1060s and written in an approximation of Anglo Saxon.

Their shared session opened with Rylance ploughing straight into a reading from the novel, which is written in clearly understandable English prose (easier than Riddley Walker, reviewed here recently) but delivered with a mystifying Jamaican tilt by Rylance. A similar premise to Walker, the plot was described as “a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years in the past.

Kingsnorth provided some historical context, perhaps to refresh the memories of those people (like myself) who felt slightly rusty on this passage in our nation’s history, but also to animate the stage for the kind of myths he is looking to revive. He opened with England’s foundation myth of the 5th century: after the collapse of the Roman Empire, warring tribes and king Vortiger were under Pictish threat from the North. Vortiger hired German mercenaries – the Angles and the Saxons – who did not know the Romans had once been in residence (this seems hard to believe) and told stories that giants had built the aqueducts.

Once the Germans had overcome the Picts, a giant leap forward to the eleventh century saw England as a rising medieval power on the island of Albion with a centralized monarchy and language. When it came to discussing 1066, Kingsnorth was keen on not rushing straight ahead to the Plantagenets, as History has been taught on the curriculum for a long time, but stopped at this point and asked why it took several hundred years after 1066 before English became the first language of the King, and why the first law of the land, created in 1067, was that all land is first in the possession of the crown. In other words, all land was automatically owned by the King, which is technically still the position in law today. There was also something called a ‘murdrum’ fine, which provided the root of murder as we know it, which you had to pay if you took a Norman’s life.

The effect these two factors had on the English people yielded more interesting results than posing the usual Battle of Hastings questions suggests: the decade after 1066 saw resistance to the new rule across the country. There were pockets of it, of little prominence, as resistance often manifests itself. The Battle of York saw all local rebel factions flee upon William’s approach. He then scorched hundreds of square miles of the surrounding land and killed all the livestock in what became known as the Harrying of the North, which resulted in widespread famine. This was dutifully recorded in the Domesday Book and is still referred to today. It was of course a decision William took in order to ensure rebellion would not be repeated, as well as to flush any remaining rebels out of hiding. He was quoted as saying on his deathbed to (the hardly impartial) Audric: “I fell on the English as a ravening lion…in this way I took revenge…and so became a barbarous murderer…and so dare not leave the crown to anyone but God.”

The main question that actually preoccupied Kingsnorth was clearly what life in England during this period was like, from the point of view of the Lincolnshire Fens farmer of his novel, who is in constant dialogue with the pre-Christian Teutonic gods. In this way the intersection between myth and history remains as knotted and integral as it always was. Picking at this knot with the old stories as a tool is something Kingsnorth is attempting for a part of the country we don’t hear enough about.

The Fens then were very different for one thing, being undrained, wild salt marshes, with a reputation for errant messengers travelling between villages, taking any news with them. One such story was that of a local ruler sending men into the Fens to find the source of its eeriness. There they found a being with long red hair, known as the Wuduwasa; the Wood Worm; the Witch of the Bleak Shore; a Cyclops or “the being that never dries out”. The men took the creature back to their king and built it an iron cage to investigate what gave it such presence. Their torture yielded no results. The king’s dreams started to be affected by the creature, and he gave his wife the key to the cage and told her to keep it in the croft of her hips, before he departed for the hunt. Their son is of course trapped by the creature in his cage, and bargains with him for his release. The prince is given a way to summon the creature before the latter returns to the swamp. The King returns and banishes his son in the same direction, at which point he summons the monster and leaps upon his back. They disappear under the earth and into the darkness of the Fens. Beneath the swamp was a kingdom where the boy spent seven years. Before he leaves, the creature washes his hair in a pool that turns his curls into gold that the prince is warned not to show anyone, unless he cannot avoid it. The story ends with a grand reveal, a reversal of fortune and a lesson, as most stories do.

In 1070 there was the last stand of the warrior band, lead by Hereward The Wake, to resist the Normans from invading Ely on the Fens. The Normans built a giant floating causeway and siege towers but were attacked from behind their own lines by the resistance. In the end Ely was betrayed rather than conquered by a local monk. Hereward escaped, never to be seen again. Perhaps he resides beneath the Fens still, complete with golden curls.

The Editors

26. Why Read?

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If aliens from outerspace came down and saw us reading they might think we were mentally challenged. They would probably blow us up as useless.

“Why are they they looking at these strange lines and curves and shapes when they can be talking to each other or running or watching movies or whatever.”

Or “Why slouch on a couch, squinting at an obscure and probably meaningless piece of paper when they can be doing healthy things?”

Reading seems like a very hard activity. You have to learn a written language, sit very still, focus, and try to translate the 100,000 or so marks that appear in every book.

And, by the way, if you read enough it’s a guarantee you will damage your eyes.

But it’s worth it. Here’s 10 reasons why:

A) EDUCATIONAL (with an important caveat):

Today, for instance, I read from “End of Power” by Moises Naim, to prepare for my podcast with him.

The man is a genius. I read about his theories of why countries like America or companies like Microsoft inevitably experience a decay in their power and influence despite their massive size and ability to coerce.

How photo companies like instagrapm can have a dozen employees, zero revenues, and be sold for a billion dollars while other photo companies like Kodak can have 140,000 employees and then go bankrupt.

He explains how, why, what, and how to take advantage of it. It was fascinating.

The caveat is: I’ll only remember a small amount. Maybe a year later, one or two pieces of information and maybe one theme will stick with me. But that’s ok.

Hopefully I’ll remember the important parts.

B) ENTERTAINING

Given that I’m only going to remember a small amount in the long run, I have to also love the act of reading.

I love how writers put together words to form sentences I’ve never thought of. How the sentences weave together into stories.

I imagine myself in the story. I imagine that for a moment I’m the main character. I live their lives.

In the middle the night, with wind blowing, Claudia sleeping next to me, the anxieties of the day subsiding, I get to travel to an entirely new Universe and be a part of it. I’m Harry Potter. Or I’m Frodo. Or the guy stuck on Mars in “The Martian”.

Why not watch it on TV instead? I am!

The TV is in my head and much more vivid. It’s IDTV – Imagination-Density-TV and has many more colors and pixels and dreams infused in it.

C) INSPIRATIONAL

The other day I was reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin. She decided to spend a year focusing on making 12 different parts (one for every month) of her life happier.

Each month she had a dozen or so suggestions about how to improve that part of her life. Again, some I’ll remember, some I’ll apply, some will make me happier, some will be applicable only to her. She admits that.

And some I will forget.

I was inspired by the fact that several hundred small suggestions could add up to a significant increase in our level of equanimity in her life – our ability to be calm in the face of the difficult and to enjoy more the higher peak moments.

She gave one suggestion which I tried the other day. Claudia and I were bickering about something or other. I forget.

Gretchen suggests hug for at least six seconds. It takes six seconds of hugging for the oxytocin and serotonin “happy chemicals” (which I learned about in another book: “Meet Your Happy Chemicals” by Loretta Breuning) to get triggered into the body, causing feelings of intimacy and happiness.

I hugged Claudia and slowly counted to six.

It worked.

D) VIRTUAL MENTORSHIP

Although reading is inspiring, it feels like the inspiration lasts for a few hours and then starts to get metabolized.

I feel grateful and mindful and “present” for awhile but then I need more.

I don’t mind though, since I like to be inspired. And the more of it I read, the easier it gets to become a practice.

But just as important and inspirational to me, is reading about the lives of virtual mentors.

At any given point, I have interests. And with any interest, there are people who came before me who are much better than me. They have put in their 10,000 hours.

They have dominated the subtleties of their field and have spent a lifetime mastering their craft.

We’re the average of the five people we surround ourselves with. But I don’t usually hang out with five people a day. But I can hang out with five people through books.

Every day I read about people who have done what I would like to do. I then try to model myself after them: their behavior, learn from their failures, their successes, their behavior, their courage.

It’s hard to get a real-life mentor. That said, I think at every stage of life we need one. And for every passion and interest you have, I, at least, learn the fastest from the people who came before me.

A book about a person you want to model yourself after, allows you to have a virtual mentor. Virtual mentors are often greater than real-life mentors.

A book is the curated life of these mentors, the exact pivotal points where their actions had the most impact on the people they came to be. I love to read these books.

I just finished “Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin. He might not know it but he’s now my mentor.

E) LAUGHTER

Food, by Jim Gaffigan.

Trust me on this one.

F) YES, READING MAKES ME BETTER THAN OTHER PEOPLE

I love playing games. For instance, since I was a kid I love games like chess, scrabble, poker.

But if I just play the games day after day, I never get better. The only way I get better is to study the books written by or about the great players of history.

It’s a sad goal: to want to beat your friends mercilessly in a game. But it’s worth it and reading lets me achieve that goal.

In every area I read about, I slightly improve my knowledge, my understanding, and my ability to come up with new ideas in that area.

It’s that little bit each day, that can give any of us a huge edge in the long run. Knowledge compounds rather than increases little by little.

G) ART

This sounds pretentious. So I will make it less pretentious.

The other day, right here on this page, I plagiarized my 12 year old daughter.

She had written a story. In one part of the story things were somewhat somber. So she used the phrase “the hush of silence” to describe the feelings of the characters.

Later, as they often do in life, things got more tense.

The atmosphere was “stung with silence”. I liked that juxtaposition. I honestly was a bit envious she used these phrases and they didn’t seem like cliches.

Two opposite ways to describe something that was essentially empty: silence.

So, like a good father … I stole from my daughter, figuring she would never know (shhh, don’t tell her). I used the phrase “stung with silence” in a post.

I need to improve as a father.

But I can’t help it. Sometimes the way words weave together, and connect me to other parts of a story where similar words were used (like a poem), makes me want to put a book down and think the words over and over in my head.

Sentences and stories and articles have a rhythm, like a song. The best writers make beautiful songs.

Many great authors do that through the authenticity and honesty in their language: Denis Johnson, James Baldwin, Miranda July, and on and on.

You don’t have to be a great poet. Just really dig out the honesty of a single moment.

H) OPTIMISM

This is why newspapers are junk. “Being informed” is a scam marketing campaign. Fear drives subscriptions. Period.

But books don’t worry about that.

“Bold” by Peter Diamindis and Stephen Kotler gives me huge reasons for optimism in a world where the daily junk media is nothing but doom and gloom.

3D Printing, Robotics, Synthetic Biology, virtual reality, space travel, and historical trends on literacy and poverty and violence – all show the direction the world is heading and it’s a positive one.

One great example: many of the tools we take for granted in our cell phone (GPS, a game player, video recorder, camera, music library) when added up would have cost close to a million dollars in 1982 and now cost just a few hundred dollars.

This democratization of technology is spreading throughout the developing world, creating a larger middle class than ever and bringing people out of poverty. As Dr. Naim said in “The End of Power”, for the first time, more people live above the poverty line in Africa than below it.

Not a huge cause of celebration but a start. It’s a direction of growth. And as I learned in Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” – growth and happiness go side by side.

Or “Sapiens – a Brief History of Humankind” describes the historical evolution of our species going from tribes to cities to kingdoms to empires to leaving us with an optimistic hope that further unification will lead to greater abundance and eventual peace.

I) WRITING

I can’t write unless I read first. I’ll read and read and read and then suddenly a little electric bomb goes off in my head when the reading uncovers a memory I had forgotten existed.

It’s like reading digs into my head as if it were an archaeological find.

Then I almost feel like I’m hypnotized until I write.

Often I like to try on the styles of different writers as well. It’s like they’ve woven clothes out of their words and I get to try on the different sets of clothes.

The writers become my mentors after I read them.

J) SHARING

The reality is: as much as we have in common, I’m different from my daughters. But guess what – we’ve all read The Hunger Games.

And so we can talk about the ethics of what happens in the Games. The dynamics of how the world is set up politically. We can make up possible ways fan fiction can exist in the world created by the author.

We can talk for hours about it.

With almost anyone I meet, our common ground is usually based on the things we read. The more we have both read, the more common ground in most cases.

It’s such a pleasure to occasionally speak the same language as my children like we are complete equals. Even though they are smaller than me and love to watch the reality show “Dancing Moms”, reading has become our great equalizer.

I like to sleep eight uninterrupted hours a day (many reasons for that by Dave Asprey’s “The Bulletproof Diet”, AJ Jacobs “Drop Dead Healthy”, and Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” give good descriptions of how to build a good sleep routine). Sleeping is the number one way to build energy and rejuvenate the brain.

But I also once read that when you wake up with an idea, you have to write it down immediately or you’ll forget it.

I woke up at 2am with the idea to write this post. It’s 3:04 and I’m going back to sleep.

James Altucher

This post originally appeared in the newsletter of jamesaltucher.com with the title ‘10 Reasons Reading Makes Your Life Better‘ and is reproduced with thanks to the author.  

Book Club Spy: Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North

the_narrow_road_9f6ab061951_originalIt is getting harder to record the dialogue of Book Club as time goes on. Partly because I am too busy trying to interrupt to write down the finer points ricocheting about, and partly because a pattern has appeared where the group divides into two – fairly sharply down the middle – and one half then proceeds to disagree with the other. In the most good natured way possible. At great speed and volume.

For the session on Lorrie Moore’s Bark this was more of a problem (coming soon) but for Flanagan it was ideal, because of the LRB review.

For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, The Narrow Road to the Deep North received a fairly scathing review from Michael Hofmann in the December issue of The London Review of Books. It is full of scything blows like this:

This novel is truly an entitled thing: it demands both action and high-value misty contemplation or ‘memory’. It is a universal solvent, or claims to be. You want love, it says; I got love! You want death? I got it. All the kinds. Any amount. It is all bite, and no chew. ”

I read this article before I read the novel; despite being warned not to, but could not contain myself. It is both terrible and wonderful. As a testament to the thickness of my skull or ability to compartmentalize, I truly enjoyed the book despite this. It is an account of life in a Japanese POW camp for Australian soldiers building a railway in impossible conditions, and then beyond to life after the war, full of crossed wires and missed opportunity.

Those in Book Club who disliked the novel in its own right – having escaped Hofmann’s surgical body blow – did so for the wrong reasons. That is was not worthy of the Man Booker; that there are too many books on the Second World War; that the protagonist Dorrigo Evans is not complicated enough – these do not really stand up as arguments in themselves.

Hofmann makes several fair points: the love story is jerkily executed. Our hero falls in love with the wrong woman, and they do not get a happy ending. So far, not so bad, but there is a halting uncertainty to how Flanagan plots this missed opportunity so that it is more awkward than tragic. However, there is an argument that every love story in wartime does not get to be a sweeping epic. Similarly, Dorrigo is no Captain Dicky Winters from Band of Brothers, especially once he gets home, but surely that is the point of him. He plays the hero, but knows he is performing a necessary role in the camp, and once he gets home he continues to act. Unfortunately he is a Don Draper figure in peacetime: a facsimile, a shadow of a man, blankly pursuing women for the sake of it having already ticked all of life’s necessary boxes. The only problem is that Flanagan did not make the character darker.

Flanagan’s use of language veers towards the trite, and then reels itself back in in the nick of time with phrases like “the heat felt like a maternal force commanding him not to get up“. Some argued he has no style and others simply no affectation, comparing him to Colm Toibin.

One thing emerges for sure: there is a lot of surface work going on. Life in peacetime is not explained in detail until years have gone by, the difficulty of rehabilitation for Dorrigo is glossed over, when this would have gone a long way towards explaining his later difficulties. This may have also been because of the nature Flanagan’s own father’s recollections, which formed the spine of the book. The war comes to an end, people change their names and attempt to move on from the horror of starving to death in the damp jungle, and of course Dorrigo Evans can’t relate to those around him on a deeper level post war. None of them were dying of dysentery for want of a single egg in trenches full of human excrement. Both Evans and his captors in the camp have a certain amount of uncertainty about their names, especially the latter when it comes to the war crimes trial. No one knows who to be afterwards; this is nothing new.

Of course, some of the Japanese disappeared into ruined Tokyo and effectively eluded any attempt to identify them, at least for years. Nakamura, the General of the camp, hooked on speed and given an impossible job to do (build a railway in a sodden jungle with dying prisoners and dwindling resources) feels ticks biting him under the skin and believes he represents the Japanese spirit in its purest form. He survives by changing his name, and by refusing to remember. He believed the Australians died in their thousands because they did not have the necessary ‘spirit’ that the Japanese exemplified – the irony behind the spirit of nations being that every nation believes it is unique to them. The Australian attitude in the camps was refreshing to someone reared on British Blitz and Bridge Across the River Kwai bravery: they make jokes at the bleakest moments on the Line, and those who make it go back to the haunts described by the fallen, to drink together. This was a refreshing change to David Niven-esque lighting of cigarettes and telling each other to buck up during a dogfight, etc etc.

With all of the anniversaries of wars occurring so close to each other, some may be saturated with stories of horror from both World Wars and now Waterloo. This book deserves a look out of the Booker Prize beam, and in the light of being an Australian book (one of several I have enjoyed in recent years and would like to see more around) written for the right reasons.

The Editors

25. Why Read?

“Why Read?”

You can rely on reading.

Lots of the other things that you can do to pass your time and have fun are out of your control. My favourite television programme has ended and there probably won’t be another series because not enough people liked it (which means they must have been stupid), but with a book, it’s just you and the book. It doesn’t depend on anyone else’s point of view – once it’s there, no-one can change that.

In the same way, when I read, no-one is making their mind up about the appearance, setting or accent that characters have: everything comes out of my own brain. If you go to the theatre, or to the cinema, then lots of that has already been done for you. Even if you don’t think that that lady looks like Medea, that’s bad luck because she’s already in it and that’s who you’re going to see. I didn’t think Percy Jackson would have an American accent, but he did in the film and now that’s the voice I hear in my head when I read the books.

Reading allows me to make my own mind up about everything, and make my own decisions: there’s just me and the writer’s words – and that’s how I think it should be. That’s why I read.

William Kelly, age 11

“Why Read?”

I read me because it enables me to go back in time and experience what other people with different standards of living experienced.

I find it really interesting to read about things that I don’t understand, because then I’ll know about it, and that knowledge will never leave me – I even know about the Stone Age now, and that’s not the sort of thing that comes up in conversation, but it’s good to know, because now I’ll never wonder what happened in the Stone Age. I’ll know.

Some of the most amazing people in history wrote their autobiographies, so you don’t have to think what they MIGHT have thought: you can read their actual words. People like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Julius Caesar (and some baddies as well) wrote about what had happened in their lives, so when I read about them, I know they’re telling the truth and that they haven’t got it wrong.

Alexander Kelly, age 10

“Why Read?”

Reading lets impossible things happen to you.

You can be in the story, with the characters, not just watching the story like you would do on television, but actually being there. Even if you don’t know people exactly like in the story, or know the places that they’re talking about; when you read, it’s like you do know those things.

In “Alice in Wonderland”, I think Alice is me, and that those things could actually happen to me in real life. Even if there are things that seem impossible (like girls turning into kangaroos in “The Wind on the Moon”), when I read it in a book, I don’t think it’s fake or unrealistic: I think that there’s a world where it can happen and does (under certain circumstances). When I read these stories, I think that these places are lovely places to be, and that the things that are happening are lovely things to happen. It brings a huge amount of pleasure into my life and allows me to relax in silence, and if I couldn’t read I’d miss all the worlds, the lives and the people in the books who have come to life as I have read about them.

Nina Kelly, age 10

 

24. Why Read?

The rational benefits of reading have been extolled at length and are varied: it’s an educational pastime, it’s social, there’s a simple pleasure to visiting a well-stocked bookshop or library. But the thing that really interests me is the unquantifiable; the magical: it is the finishing of a book.

It is taking a second to let it settle in the mind and the heart. It is being in – and yet slightly apart from – your surroundings. It is getting on with the business of living after the book has happened to you.

The moment varies in intensity and spirit depending on what’s been read. Sometimes we move quickly on, with the lightness of an untroubled mind, immediately forgetting much of what we’ve just read. Sometimes we linger as we reintroduce the back cover and the last page, feeling heartbroken, inspired, bewildered or philosophical, as the book colours the way we take those first few steps back into the real world. For my part, the imagery conjured up by George Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia remains with me from the first reading; the lucid recollections leaving a permanent impression on an adolescent mind dealing with the challenges, responsibilities and myriad journeys of impending adulthood. Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming: not so.

The finishing of a book is a brilliant thing to experience oneself, but an even better thing to witness.

It’s a joy to watch someone close a book and try to judge how they felt about it from their actions and expressions.

This is what I see as the reader’s “decisive moment”, their pause after the curtain falls and before the applause sounds, the second between the apple striking Newton and the forming of an idea in his head. It’s the stillness and clarity and optimism of that single moment at the very end of any tome that keeps me coming back to the bookshop or library in search of my next conquest and compels me to encourage the same venturing spirit in you.

We never acknowledge it, but we avid book devourers are all in a club. And it’s changed our lives. It’s the Finishing a Book Club.

I call on you to renew your membership today.

Simon Thompson

23. Why Read?

I was read to before I learned to love reading. My sister and I would lay attentively, tucked into our twin beds as my father’s slow melodic voice lulled us to slumber. As he sat reading I would fall in and out of new and familiar worlds, and although I can’t remember any of the books he read, I can remember the feeling being read to gave me: it was comforting.

Perhaps being read to made me lazy, I don’t remember reading much as a child. I was further behind in literacy than most of my year. It wasn’t till University, a little after University in fact, that I would find reading a prerequisite for happiness. Suddenly books were something I had to read, rather than an extracurricular activity to take or leave.

There is a magnificent power to literature, both in fiction and non-fiction, that nothing else in life can give you. My family never had the money to travel beyond Cornwall, I don’t have the money to travel beyond Europe. Yet I’ve seen Canada, China and Australia without needing to leave my living room. I’ve travelled through time, into space, through wars and into the minds of others. When fiction is at it’s best I’ve dropped periodically into experiences so vivid I have trouble separating them from my own. Reading is an inexpensive tool to expand the mind, both intellectually and emotionally.

Reading inspires me to act in the world – not just participate. I understand others better, I am more accepting of difference and more aware of social injustice. I fight ignorance with each new book while simultaneously realising how much more I have to learn.

As saccharine as it sounds, reading makes me think anything is possible.

To quote George R. R. Martin’s Jojen Reed:

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

Why read? Why live once when you can live infinitely.

Alice Farrant writes the blog ofBooks.org. Follow her on Twitter: @nomoreparades.

22. Why Read?

I was a sickly child. But I was fortunate in having a mother who was ambitious for me and who had a long shelf for my books built above my bed. I could reach my entire library without having to get up. Nearest to the pillow end were the ten volumes of my Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia. I don’t know who Arthur was, but he did a cracking encyclopaedia. It was not arranged alphabetically but quite arbitrarily, so it was perfect for browsing, rather like the London Library. It moved seamlessly from Mme. Roland ascending the scaffold (‘Oh Liberty! What crimes are committed in your name!’), a line I have never forgotten, through a cutaway drawing of the engine room of RMS Queen Mary to ‘Dusky Beauties’, pictures of women of the British Empire, always naked to the waist and frequently with discs the size of soup plates set into their lower lips, or long sharp pegs through their noses, parallel to the ground, as if they had been ambushed by someone with a bow and arrow.

Solid reading came next with the complete Sherlock Holmes long and short stories and then Conan Doyle’s Historical Romances. I particularly liked The White Company. Next on the shelf came my Arthur Ransome’s packaged by Jonathan Cape in handsome green covers. People call them the Swallows and Amazons books but that title is one of the dullest. Pigeon Post and We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea were my favourites. That reminds me of Enemy Coast Ahead, another great favourite; a shabby little Pan book about Guy Gibson. ‘It takes strength to fly a Lancaster’ it told me. Well, I could imagine corkscrewing the plane in an emergency and spiralling out of those dazzling searchlights. Next would be my Observers Book of Aircraft, small enough to fit in my blazer pocket, but actually I didn’t need it if I was out with my binoculars because I knew every aeroplane in the skies of England at the time. No, its well-executed three-views of the Hawker Hunter, the Avro 504 and the Bristol Brabazon (for example) were a kind of roughage for the imagination; I saw myself in them, or making models of them, or improving on them – another jet here, more sweepback there.

Herbert Ponting’s book about being the photographer on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole didn’t make me want to be an explorer, but may have led to my training as a photographer. There were books that one got out of the library but didn’t own. W. E. Johns’ Biggles books passed the time but didn’t win shelf room. I found books in other peoples’ houses that I would have liked to own. Emil and the Detectives (Kästner) was a joy to me and lives on in my mind 60 years later, and so does an American children’s book called Little Britches. I liked Hornblower and would have adored Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey novels; if only they had been available then! On the bedroom shelf was a curious little Penguin that I liked very much called I Was Graf Spee’s Prisoner, the true story of a merchant seaman whose ship had been sunk by the German pocket battleship. The war had only been over for seven years when I was ten and cast a long, strong shadow. I had two volumes of the government’s propagandist Britain at War series, one RAF, one Royal Navy. I pored over the pictures, but the text was unreadable. H. E. Marshall’s Our Island Story taught me some history and was useful if one had history prep. Also useful for prep was Pear’s Cyclopaedia which I was given every Christmas by an uncle. But this was a dangerous book, for its medical dictionary convinced me that I had a terminal pulmonary tuberculosis and ruined one Christmas as I waited for the blow to fall. If there were other books on my shelf, I have forgotten them. They failed, then, to be memorable and that is the first thing that a good read should be. Why read? Well, why live? Why think? Why dream?

 George Pownall

Don Quixote 4: the mirror

“It was a great misadventure for me to run across a man who is seeking adventures.” – a young bachelor of the church injured by Don Quixote

I recently saw a man wearing a t-shirt that read “Smart has the brains, but stupid has the balls.” Which seemed applicable as a description for Don Quixote’s adventuring. In our latest episode, he has stopped a funeral procession of ‘timorous and unarmed’ young men hurrying to an inn far away as the day is getting late, “Halt, O knights, or whomsoever you might be, and give an account of yourselves.”

“We’re in a hurry” comes the reply. So the fearless knight errant of La Mancha, looking to take revenge on behalf of the dead knight he imagines to be carried in the litter behind the group, attacks them with his lance and breaks a man’s leg. “No doubt about it,” says Sancho, “this master of mine is as brave and courageous as he says.”

One of Cervantes’ most enjoyable literary games is the self-referential exchanges between narrator and character; he plays with Don Quixote’s self-perception and the narrative reality of the story: asking Sancho Panza why it was that he chose to describe him as The Knight of the Sorrowful Face, Don Quixote corrects Sancho’s assertion that it is because of “your grace having the sorriest-looking face I have seen,” and instead asserts: “rather the wise man whose task it will be to write the history of my deeds must have thought it a good idea if I took some appellative title as did the knights of the past.” At once ridiculous and insightful, Don Quixote shows a literary self awareness which bears no relation to reality and yet lends to his credibility as a character who bridges the divide between fiction and reality both in personality and in a strange brand of meta-wisdom that can only exist because of the gap between reader, narrator and character, a gap which Cervantes exploits adroitly to turn a ludicrous character into a compelling and occasionally insightful one.

And perhaps one of the greatest gifts of the novel is the reflexive nature of Don Quixote’s delusional self-belief:

“I am, I repeat, he who is to revive the Knights of the Round Table, the Twelve Peers of France, the Nine Worthies, he who is to make the world forget the Platirs, Tablants, Olivants, and Tirants, the Phoebuses and Belianises, and the entire horde of famous knights errant of a bygone age”.

Shortly after this vaunting speech, and in order to prevent his master setting out on his “incomparable and most fearsome adventure” in the middle of the night, Sancho “very quietly and cunningly tied Rocinante’s forelegs together with his donkey’s halter” thus preventing Don Quixote’s departure until morning. Perhaps we all need a Sancho Panza in our lives, to lash our donkey’s legs together when our ambitions begin to overreach our reality.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall - MantelWolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

The Book Club spy has been woefully inactive of late, however their swansong was an evening dedicated to Wolf Hall. It is highly unlikely that Don’t Read Too Fast readers will not have encountered this Booker Prize winning novel by Mantel, if they have not yet had the chance (or if they hated it, apparently some history graduates do) then it portrays the fall of Cardinal Wolsely and Thomas More during the rise of Anne Boleyn, from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view.

The novel opens on Cromwell as a boy in Putney being beaten by his drunken father in a rage. Despite being easily big enough to defend himself, he runs away to France.  The first indication of his steely control comes through his explanation for his egress: “I’ve had enough of this. If he gets after me again I’m going to kill him, and if I kill him they’ll hang me, and if they’re going to hang me I want a better reason”. He does not waste words, and is spurred on by logic and calculation, rather than fear.

We next meet him 27 years later, working as Cardinal Wolsely’s right hand.  He is a lawyer, an accountant, and an enforcer with an opaque background as a mercenary and trader. Wolsely teaches him diplomacy (“You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook”) as he already knew money.  Read more