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Posts from the ‘Why Read?’ Category

17. Why Read?

I read from a young age and hated fiction. Poetry was something dad read to bore us. As it happens he read Larkin: my sister and I would run into mum and dad’s bedroom on a weekend morning and Whitsun Weddings would come out. I don’t think we appreciated waking up in sunshine (it is sunny in that memory) only to be told our life was dreary, miserable and commonplacely depressing. Sadness is fine as long as it’s yours. This became a joke, then a running joke, then stopped altogether.

My sister would read Swallows and Amazons, but I really couldn’t see the point. She was the artsy child, and I was the engineer/scientist. I read, over and over again, ‘The Illustrated Highway Code’ – landscape format with a red cover and the Vauxhall logo on the front. My favourites were level crossings and how to pass a horse on a country lane. I also liked instruction books for Lego sets, and was a subscriber to ‘Truck and Driver’ magazine – a kind of hobby/lifestyle publication for long distance lorry drivers.

I couldn’t see why you would want to read something that was made up. It didn’t strike me as useful. I liked practical advice, step by step instructions, tips for living in the world. I used to be what is known as a ‘whittler’ – someone who worries excessively – often told to ‘stop whittlin’ on.’ What if I was called on to rope and sheet a flatbed, and didn’t know the techniques let alone the regulations and legal requirements regarding loose ends or wide loads?

Ageing, however, the racing mind needs more than what she can surround herself with. Everyone has imagination, but imagination isn’t actually a very advanced tool. All it really does is combine things it already knows in different ways. Medieval bestiaries illustrate how unimaginative imagination is: griffins, mermaids, centaurs, anthropophagi, all work with the same “something known, plus something known, with aspects of something else.” What you really need is something you have no idea about.

At 16 I did my first bit of reading, about 11 years after I first learnt to process words in an order. I haven’t read much since really, no one does. It was La Belle Dame Sans Merci, by Keats. I looked into him. I didn’t think he was lying, I believed he used to be a living person, which left one option: something had happened to him that was beyond my ken, but presumably it was equally possible that something like his experience could happen to me. Poetry is a record of something possible. Novels provide a whole wealth of possible trajectories.

“Time becomes human time to the extent that it is organised after the manner of narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience.” That’s Paul Ricoeur, from his 3 volume masterwork Time and Narrative. That quote is from page 3, volume 1, and I trust it continues in a similar vein.  I absolutely believe him though. If you believe a fictional character’s life, or feel something in a line of verse, you do so because it portrays the features of temporal experience. It is something which is, for you, (probably) unexperienced (precisely that way), but possible.

To read, then, is to be addicted to the infinite of possible futures. Each thing read is a provisional manifesto – a statement of how the future might (or should) go. There are infinite variations, even from this point in this piece, as to how it all will go. I think this is why Joseph Brodsky could say: “there is no doubt in my mind that, had we been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth… If only because the lock and stock of literature is indeed human diversity and perversity, it turns out to be a reliable antidote for any attempt – whether familiar or yet to be invented – toward a total mass solution to the problems of human existence.” Tyranny is only reading one book.

He sounds like a bloody dreamer. Readers seem to be categorised as dreamers, like my sister reading Swallows and bloody Amazons and neglecting the practical, hard-headed school of fact that she’s going to need if she is ever driving behind a horse on a country lane. Every written thing strikes us as a dream. But the dream becomes as taut as a hypothesis, waiting in the background for the correct experiment to float into the present and prove it right or wrong.

There is, of course, another option – that you know exactly what the writer is talking about, that the experiment has already happened. This is normally about love, I think. The chances of biographies matching up is almost zero, but for all its excitement, buoyancy and boisterous falls love is experienced (it seems) the same way. As a topic it is boring and endless, as a feeling it is chaotic, with all the variables of two people interacting in the least programmatic but most predictable way. Reading about love is background research or peer review. Sometimes it explains better what we already know, gives it form and structure and reason. Gatsby ends up alone and rich, and then one fine morning… My current addiction to the sadness of old men winding down gives variously things to aim at and avoid.

Thinking of life like a narrative is dangerous, and fatal if caught too young; constructing the future is an addiction, and turns very sour in the moments when time decides to re-assert that you don’t write your life (it does). Remember this, however, and you are free to know what might happen. Reading strings time together. It creates a useful if illusory framework. The best books take ages to read, only because every line sends you staring into space, thinking how it jigsaws with everything else. Each thing is an opening.

Montale thought, and thought till the end, that “art is a form of life that doesn’t truly live: a compensation, or a surrogate”, he is right. But it doesn’t swamp the past, it structures a future that hasn’t truly had time to live, or codifies the loose end of a past. I couldn’t even begin to drive when I was 6. Maybe my reasons for reading haven’t changed.

Jack Castle

16. Why Read?

Reading, both for me and for others it turns out (see Why Read? no. 15), is so heavily entrenched in my brain as a morally acceptable activity that the title of this offering could just as well as be: “why I choose to devote my life to the homeless”. Putting myself forward as a representative member of the reading as opposed to the non-reading gang feels an awful lot like showing-off (perhaps because in all sincerity I just know that we’re better: the Sharks to their Jets, the mustard to their Ketchup, the Rhetts to their Ashleys). Perhaps this sense of moral superiority is sufficient reason to read, especially as it’s often free. Though my standard 2:1 ratio of romantic, preferably teenage, slimline volumes to weighty cerebral tomes does undermine my lofty heights somewhat.

Luckily, there is another reason why I read. In fact, there are two more. The first is notably revealing about the author but here goes: reading minimises the time I have to sit and think, a very dangerous occupation, responsible to my mind for a huge number of social ills and the declining quality of the female in the modern era. I read books feverishly, hardly digesting a word, often unable to recall their plot a mere week later. It seems likely this isn’t something to advocate but I like it. I need it. The second reason is the good one though: reading results in an enormously bolstered faith in Mankind, courtesy of the surefire confirmation that a breed of superior beings exist who can write beautiful prose and what’s more, that most people and most things are interesting if you can just capture their angle. As I never really plan what to read next but tend to just pick up something lying around at my parents’ house, it is inadvertently that I have discovered that bull-fighting is interesting, as are lots of wars and recluses and 18 year olds and 73 year olds and whales (ish) and egomaniacs and dust-bowls and sometimes even children. I won’t get into the entangled reinforcement of religious faith here (All good gifts around us): three reasons will suffice.

Evelyn Amory

15. Why Read?

I couldn’t read till the age of 10 – not at all. My parents sent me to a spechal school for dyslexic purpils in Pimlico. Each day, aged 8, I would take the 88 bus home to Clapham. If the bus broke down on rounte or decided to terminate half way I would take out my mobile (brough for exactly this purpus) and call home. Mum would ask what I could see in order to try and figure out where I was: trees, cars, buildings. I would find a street sign and spell out the letters best I could: ‘Sout Lamdeth Roab’. She would then come and get me in the car.

After 2 years of daily one-to-one reading lessions I creacked it and moved back in to main stream education. But this struggle to learn has left me with a odd hang-up. For me reading and ‘being good’ is the same thing; there is nothing more important I should be doing, I never think of it as a waste of time or being lazy. It is an important part of life that has to be done. This makes it sound like a chor or a punishment but I don’t mean it to. I love reading and I use it to make myself feel better. If I’m restless, feeling guilty or distatefied I sit and read a novel for a couple of hour and feel that I have both achieved something and am a ‘better’ person for it. I only ever read fiction and never trashy books. 14 years on from the bus stop I have an English degree and work in communications, although, sadly my spelling is still crap.

Why Read?

I couldn’t read till the age of 10 – not at all. My parents sent me to a special school for dyslexic pupils in Pimlico. Each day, aged 8, I would take the 88 bus home to Clapham. If the bus broke down on route or decided to terminate half way I would take out my mobile (bought for exactly this purpose) and call home. Mum would ask what I could see in order to try and figure out where I was: trees, cars, buildings. I would find a street sign and spell out the letters best I could: ‘South Lambeth Road’. She would then come and get me in the car.

After 2 years of daily one-to-one reading lessons I cracked it and moved back in to main stream education. But this struggle to learn has left me with a odd hang-up. For me reading and ‘being good’ is the same thing; there is nothing more important I should be doing, I never think of it as a waste of time or being lazy. It is an important part of life that has to be done. This makes it sound like a chore or a punishment but I don’t mean it to. I love reading and I use it to make myself feel better. If I’m restless, feeling guilty or dissatisfied I sit and read a novel for a couple of hours, and feel that I have both achieved something and am a ‘better’ person for it. I only ever read fiction and never trashy books. 14 years on from the bus stop I have an English degree and work in communications, although, sadly my spelling is still crap.

Olivia Amory

http://www.ideastap.com/People/fdcdcddc-3beb-49fe-9e3c-9ea8009b1dbe

14. Why Read?

When I was little my middle sister and I waged war over the breakfast table.  We’d sit opposite each other, build a fort of cereal boxes and voraciously devour the backs.  I remember the bitter outrage when the shreddies box would spin round before I’d even reached ‘Riboflavin B2’.  It was considered unsporting to clamp it down with one hand while shovelling cereal with the other, the whole point was you had to finish reading shreddies before she tired of cheerios.  It was a silent battle, rarely spoken of and our poor youngest sister never even got a look in.  She sat at the edge of the table with her beaker and only a cereal box spine for breakfast fodder.

Old habits die hard and now I do battle on the tube.  Crammed in I’ll catch sight of a fellow commuter scanning the adverts and will race them to the end of our carriage (bonus points for eye-straining ads with small print).  It’s hard to know for sure whether I’ve won without asking and looking like a complete nutter, but I suspect I usually do….I’ve been training for years after all.  A riskier version is to compete with someone by reading an article in their own newspaper, over their own shoulder.  You have to be subtle; this is like parachuting into enemy territory, literacy espionage of the highest order.

I hope that one day I’ll transform from greedy wordgobbler to seasoned bookhound but for now I’m happy to suck up all the words I see; after all reading doesn’t wear them out.  I’m a bit more cautious with real literature.  You get back from books what you put in, and with careful selection and respectful concentration you can eventually arm yourself with a coterie of characters to fight life’s real battles for you.

Emily Rees Jones

13. Why Read?

Reading has an array of principal attractions depending on the breadth of the reader’s palate. It can educate, provoke thought, outrage, inspire and everything in between but the thing I cherish the most is when a book makes me laugh.

Comedy has been a staple of the arts since Aristophanes realised the positive impact it could have on his desolate audience after a tragedy or two. However, for some reason comedy is habitually given short shrift amongst the intellectual posturing that surrounds literary discussion.

Humour undoubtedly can have a serious role to play. Dickens understood how powerful comedy could be in exposing the absurdity of inequality and misfortune. With powerful topics of literature such as sex, death and faith, satire has been a crucial tool in confronting taboos.

However, the comic novel is often overlooked as it is perceived to lack the profundity of more solemn work. It can be denigrated as frivolous when quite frankly, an amusing turn can bring warmth and joy to the direst of catastrophes and help explore subject matter that serious fiction can struggle to dwell on.

Having grown up with a diet of Just William and the canon of Wodehouse’s Jeeves, I have always strongly believed that humour has a place at the head of the literary table.

Whether we choose to admit it or not, we all like to revel in other people’s misfortune. It is far safer and less morally reprehensible to do so through the medium of a novel. What greater way to explore our own shortcomings than by living vicariously through the buffoon. If you can’t be made to laugh by the work-shy delusional narrator in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat or the ill-fated Paul Pennyfeather in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall then I pity you greatly and hope I never have to sit next to you at a dinner party.

Sometimes we don’t want to decipher dense prose and unpick metaphors about the futility of existence. Sometimes we just want to be uplifted by the simple gift of laughter so readily provided by a panoply of humorous novels.  It probably says something about me but I find myself in good company going for a bun fight at Drones with Bertie Wooster and I always feel privileged to be the 4th man in the boat.

To quote Francis Bacon,

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.”

So why read? Because I need consoling!

Freddie House

12. Why Read?

One of the best Christmas memories I have is of being read to on Christmas Eve by my older brother and sister, along with one of their best friends. The book was In Cold Blood. I can’t remember how it came about. I was about to finish this book that was so much more interesting to me than – but perplexingly by the same author as – Breakfast at Tiffany’s and somebody must have suggested it. Perhaps to speed me along- I had a reputation as a non-reader in a reading family. Later on, the film of In Cold Blood came out featuring the author’s life and the germ of this singular book that so complicated the lines between fact, fiction and journalism. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Truman Capote. Hoffman carried off a portrayal of what I can well believe Capote was like – mesmerizing and vain. When he gets the idea for the book he whispers down the telephone to his childhood friend Harper Lee (who had written a totally different kind of masterpiece about compassion around the same time): “When I think about how good my new book is going to be, I can hardly breathe”.

It’s counter-intuitive and perhaps disappointing that I’m making my point with a quote from a film not a book but that drunk breathlessness is how reading makes me feel. Like the first cup of coffee of the day reading, slowly, sometimes carries with it a feeling, a surge, that has on occasion wrought upon me a rush of something almost physical.  It is not dissimilar from the sense of Christmas Eve exhilaration when very young, an equivalent perhaps. There is a sense of agency and empowerment when these moments happen, as if you were leaning into the book; our impressions reach out to bind with what the book gives us.

I had taken a while to learn how to read. Not in the sense of learning how to recognize a written word on the page, but how to settle into a personal style of reading. At first I checked books out of the school library without reading them because it looked right, outwardly. Later on, I picked books people seemed to revere to prove I had caught up. It was a waste of time. At university, books like Heart of Darkness and authors like Henry James retaught me how to read, drawing attention to the difference between seeing and knowing, and by rewarding patience with multiple valences. The beginnings of most of my thoughts about people come from books, sometimes helpfully, sometimes in need of revision. At one point in Northanger Abbey – not many people’s favourite Jane Austen, it isn’t mine either-  Henry Tilney tells the heroine Catherine Morland, roughly, not to jump to conclusions: ‘Nay, if it is to be guesswork, let us all guess for ourselves’, which, for me, resonated within and beyond the book’s immediate themes.

Hannah Joll

 

11. Why Read? – “I wish I watched more TV”

Reading is not an important activity. Books can be important but reading is not. In conversation, the magic words ‘I really should read more’ appear with metronomic regularity. Yet I never fail to find this statement irksome. I usually respond by asking a question.

‘Why?’

The answer is invariably nebulous and along the lines that reading is good for you. Reading, it appears, has become the entertainment equivalent of cod liver oil. Fantastic.

I blame us for this. I blame committed readers. We had to go and make reading so bloody special. If one were to ask a person at a party why they watch films then they would say ‘Erm, I just like them’ before backing away from you in favour of the last sausage-on-a-stick. But, readers are so very proud of their achievement that they insist on aggrandising the process.

For example, this very site includes a tab titled ‘Why read?’ The majority of visitors to dontreadtoofast.com are already keen readers and need no further convincing. All one gains is the chance to indulge in some pleasant self-gratification. For the remaining minority who came to this site by accident and want the same feeling, there are better places on the internet for it.

We have bought into the idea of reading instead of the enjoyment of books. Like any form of entertainment, the value of reading should be purely derived from the content of the material. The subject matter in a computer game, film, or conversation is of equal merit to that of a book if it offers the same insight.

So why do books demand reverence? If a friend joins you in the pub with an air of satisfaction and declares that he had watched Apocalypse Now for the third time or had played and beaten Far Cry 2, the response would be one of disdain. The friend would be called a geek or a layabout. If the friend announced his completion of Heart of Darkness then he could expect approval. The irony is that all three titles derive from The Divine Comedy.

The difference with books is the level of investment demanded in order to extract what the author intended. Books take time and active engagement on the part of the reader. If you do this you will reap the full reward. This fact is a blessing and a problem for reading. Books are ultimately the most satisfying experience because the lessons are partially self-taught and thus we take ownership of the conclusions. Conversely, because we have made this effort, we expect a pat on the back afterwards. This is why we distort the process of reading into an act of self-improvement. The inflated ideal of reading sucks all the fun out of a book, turning it into unwanted homework or the dreaded cod liver oil. For the retrospective pride of a task completed we turn reading into an achievement and a chore.

If you want to share your passion for books with those around you, than stop asking yourself why you read. Instead, recommend a book. And if that fails, just tell them it’s smutty.

James Ross

10. Why read (best-sellers)?

For the literary snob the bookshop is a battleground of culture; once through the door they must wade through a wasteland of best-selling books, complete with lurid covers, raised fonts and ridiculous titles, to reach the classics or foreign language section at the back of the shop.  Yet, the book snob would do we well to tread carefully though the shrapnel of this literary wasteland.

Much debate and far too many lines of review have been wasted on the Fifty Shades trilogy.  However, I would argue that Fifty Shades, and its best-selling neighbours, not only give us an indicator of the latest, fleeting, literary trends, but, in doing so, explain a lot about us and the world we live in.   We can no longer tag decades and centuries of the written word with discerning titles, such as romanticism, realism, gothic, modernism and post-modernism.  That our literary trends are so fleeting is the defining feature of our culture and society; the best-seller table is a real hodge-podge of literature.

Today the written word must vie with other art forms, such as film.  Walk into any cinema, flick through Sky Movies, and you will see the ravages of war, epic battles, fantastical lands and steamy erotic scenes.  Today’s best-seller is a book that has achieved its status through entertaining a reader who has easy-access to sensory overload – the book doesn’t just grab you, it must body slam you.

So, it is no wonder that Fifty Shades, a book that has reinstated erotic literature into our fold, has found its home on the best-selling table.  It is no wonder that Games of Thrones, with its world of epic fantastical battles, lewd incest and deep sorrow, has similarly won over the masses.  Our culture today has no defining literary form, it is not about a style of writing or genre.  Instead, what defines our culture, in all its art forms, is the need for an injection of adrenalin, a dose of emotion, a life booster.

I was born and bred a literary snob: at primary school I cried my way through Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, my adolescence was spent tangled up in the intertextuality of T.S.Eliot’s The Wasteland, and I spend my English literature degree at Oxford speed-reading the classics section.  I am now an avid reader of Game of Thrones, I need my hit of literary heroin as much as the next person.  My pangs of shame are soothed by the knowledge that I am one of the masses, a product of society and culture, and I hope an integral part of it.

Anna Stewart

9. Why Read?

First, a confession: I do read too fast.  I race through science fiction, I gulp down American contemporary fiction, devour bodice rippers and make an “igloo igloo” noise while consuming biographies.  The only thing I am capable of sipping is poetry, as it is something to be handled with caution: a little can sustain you for months when handled properly, whereas a botched job can ensure a soured outlook for yourself and others.

The pleasure is prolonged by the fact that you can, indigestion and penury aside, revisit and refine these moments of enjoyment throughout your life – your only concerns need be running out of shelf space (I have), allowing your muscles to atrophy (combat all the sitting down by resisting the Kindle and carrying six books everywhere) and attempting to have a relationship with a non-reader (just don’t do it). There are books from your childhood for comfort, enormous blocks of fantasy fiction for attaining the Bovary effect, the latest bolt from a newcomer that can ensure you avoid the people you went on holiday with in the first place, and the daily feat of eluding your surroundings on your commute with a piece of writing so accomplished that you miss your stop. Passages of Absalom, Absalom! stranded me in Bognor Regis.

By this stage, it may seem as if this approach is a slightly antisocial one: embracing the written word as a way of avoiding mankind. This is not the case: reading is a compulsion that defines friendships and eases every social encounter. If more people made a point of asking a new acquaintance what they are reading rather than what they do for a living, it would have the dual effect of weeding out the non-readers immediately – this is not to say you won’t be friends, but at least you immediately know them for what they truly are – and eliminating awkwardness as you attempt to politely explain what you do in an attempt to disguise the fact that you work to read.

So please continue to indulge – start early, do it everywhere and there is no such thing as too much.

Flora Joll

8. Why Read?

As any parent will know, ‘Why?’ is the central question of early childhood. Why’s the sky blue? Why’s water wet? Daddy, why aren’t you rich?

But as the father of an infant son, it strikes me that ‘Why Read?’ is a question we only learn to ask as we get older – and, I’d suggest, more cynical.

For my two-year-old, reading is still exactly what it should be: unbridled joy. He doesn’t read because he thinks he should, but because books, any books, take him somewhere new, a place more colourful, more magical. They allow him to explore not just the world around him, but also the manifold universes that exist in his own hungry imagination. His love of books is uncomplicated, unconditional.

As we get older, we can all too easily lose sight of this. At school and university, where I studied English Literature, my relationship with books became rather more, well, platonic. More often than not, I picked up a book because I had to, because it might earn me a higher mark, because it would make me brighter, ‘better read’. I learned an awful lot about books, their authors, narratives, subtexts and structures, but very little about how to enjoy them.

Not that I entirely fell out of love with reading. Some of the titles on my curriculum – Dickens’s Bleak House springs to mind – caused me untold agony. I got indigestion every time I picked them up. Others, however, such as Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, changed my life. I read that book in one go, in a tent, in a storm, and sobbed hysterically when it ended. I remember having to get blind drunk on cheap French plonk just to get over it – and I’m not really the sentimental sort.

But by the time I left university, my attitude to reading had changed. And not really for the better. Books had become less of a joy than a duty, a means to become, shudder, ‘a better person’. As a reader, I had become a hopeless self-improver.

Part of the problem is that the books we read, like the clothes we wear, appear to say an awful lot about us. Consequently, it’s easy to fall into the trap of buying the books we think we might look good reading. Ulysses is a good example – most have it; few have finished it.

I certainly first picked up Ulysses not really because I thought I’d enjoy it, but because I wanted to be one of that select bunch that genuinely gets to the end of it. Perhaps predictably, I failed. Several times. Partly out of desperation, I even tried starting it from the back – only to discover, in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, one of the most beautiful and poetic pieces of prose I have ever read (not that it made the preceding 1,000 pages any easier).

And so I stopped reading because I ‘should’, and started reading for that most rewarding, and blissfully childlike, of reasons: fun.

In fact, it was Bernard Cornwell who made me fall back in love with books. I picked up Azincourt first, and then consumed rapidly more or less everything else. Now I’ve moved onto George RR Martin, whose A Game of Thrones has recently become a huge TV hit.

Neither appeared on my university curriculum, and neither, I suppose, make me look terribly alluring when I’m spotted reading them on the bus to work. I suppose you could dismiss them as mass market. Popcorn reading.

But who cares? I don’t have to ask why I read these books, the smile on my face is reason enough.

Besides, my son is in love with The Very Hungry Caterpillar – and if pure, unpretentious enthusiasm is anything to go by, he’s the best critic of all.

Matt Warren is Editor of The Lady (www.lady.co.uk)