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Posts tagged ‘Themes’

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

1. Why Read?

Someone coming out of a bookshop once told us that he only bought books that he thought he could derive some practical benefit from.

Self-improvement is a powerful motivator, and books are generally seen as useful tools when it comes to getting ahead professionally or making a better impression socially.  I dare anyone to deny that they’ve ever looked at a bookshelf and thought that the assembled collection somehow reflected their accumulated intellect: we take pride in our books, and so we should, if we’ve actually read them.  After all, it’s rare to finish a book and not have gleaned some insight into how the world works, how things fluctuate around us as we move through life.

But neither do books confine themselves to our understanding of reality.  Often we want books to do the opposite, to move away from rationality and the strictures of our circumstances.  Emma Bovary, the doomed heroine of Flaubert’s first published novel, is the ultimate fictional embodiment of the escapist attitude as we understand it today; the idea that something better exists in the realm of literature and the imagination.  Emma’s problem was that she couldn’t draw the line between fantasy and reality; her obsession with romantic literature reflected an aspiration to inhabit a world of excitement and adventure beyond the monotony of mid-nineteenth century rural France.  In other words, living vicariously through the protagonists of Scott’s novels wasn’t enough – Madame Bovary wanted to take things a step further, and in doing so she became a romantic martyr of sorts, hopelessly unable to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality.

How does Emma’s predicament inform our views of reading today?  We think there are Emma Bovarys everywhere, some more obvious than others.  In fact, we think there’s an element of Emma Bovary in us all, only checked every once in a while by the Monsieur Homais we harbour simultaneously.  Whilst Emma was the ultimate fantasist, Homais personified the ambitious pragmatist, ruthlessly determined to climb the social/professional ladder by any means available to him.  Do these characters still represent opposite ends of the reading spectrum?  We see no reason why not, but Flaubert would have hoped that we would manage to flesh out the area in-between.

The Editors