Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Stop What You're Doing and Read This!

One of my goals for this summer in between uni and work was to read more: but not only that, to read more about reading and to study the craft of writing.  
Stop What You're Doing and Read This! is a collection of essays by academics and authors about the importance of reading and of books. It urges us to fit reading into our busy modern lives, and does so by explaining the ways that books and words have affected various individuals. 

From the Foreword: "This book is a manifesto In a year of rude awakeniings to low levels of literacy and a widespread apathy towards books and reading, this book demands an interruption."
Stop What You're Doing and Read This! (Paperback)

I'm going to run through the essays in order, with some brief thoughts on them.

  1. Library Life - Zadie Smith. This is perhaps the most explicitly political essay in the collection. Smith writes about the magic power of libraries for studying, which rang very true with me. I spent most of the final year of my degree working in the university library, finding that being surrounded by other people working made me want to keep working myself. Like Smith, I grew up a hundred yards from a small local library (mine was the same as Terry Pratchett's, though I believe he lived slightly further from the library than I did!) and I am in total agreement with her about the power of the library as a gateway 'not only to other libraries, but to other lives.' At the end of the essay, Smith is scathing about the Conservative Party's much-lauded 'Big Society' idea, writing that the government's protection of public services is 'the only possible justification for its power,' leaving the reader to complete the idea: if the current government isn't providing public services, then what exactly is the point of it? The final sentence of the essay is a cynical but oh-so-true assessment of the goons in government today: "Perhaps it's because they know what they history books will make of them that our politicians are so cavalier with our libraries: from their point of view, the fewer places where you can find a history book these days, the better".
  2. Twelve Thoughts About Reading - Blake Morrison. I found this essay more difficult to 'get into' than Smith's had been: it's broken up into twelve (unsurprisingly) sections. The first one, The Great Escape, rang truest for me. I suspect it will do so for anyone else who used books to escape from bullying or other issues as a child. A later section of the essay, Daring to say 'I', is about the confidence to write, and it's one that I suspect I shall refer to on a regular basis. The section on Why Poetry Matters cites Ted Hughes, who wrote that writing was about owning up to our dark thoughts that we have a desperate need to share, and also contains a reminder about the craft of poem-writing: '"f you're writing a poem, it's not enough to shake out your darkest feelings; you have to work at them shape them, give them form".
  3. True Daemons - Carmen Callil. This essay starts and ends by expressing a love of physical books - both en masse, as in the writer's childhood home, and in comparison to digital forms of reading which, while they may get the words across, don't keep you warm at night. I would have liked to hear more about Callil's creation of Virago publishers, though, and I suspect the discussion of Philip Pullman's daemons was lost on me, because I haven't read the His Dark Materials trilogy.
  4. Mindful Reading - Tim Parks. Parks starts this essay with what seems quite a deep and oblique discussion of how writing is different from any other art form, and then about how we learn to read. He hits his stride, exploring how a need to race through material for school leads us to skim and cram rather than to read and think. The final 'point' of his essay is that our opinions about books change wildly as time goes on, and that even books we don't like teach us about ourselves. 
  5. The Right Words in the Right Order - Mark Haddon. In this essay, Haddon writes that the beauty of writing is that it involves the rearranging of everyday words that we might hear at the bus stop or in the supermarket into something quite new and remarkable. For me, the most powerful part of the essay is Haddon's destruction of the idea that technology and Britain's Got Talent are to blame for a lack of reading. Rather, he puts the spotlight on poor literacy, closures of libraries, feeling excluded from culture, and poverty, as the factors that drive people away from reading... they're very similar to the structural factors causing terrorism that were explored in a foreign policy unit I did last year.
  6. Memories and Expectations - Michael Rosen. I wanted to love this essay. Michael Rosen's writing is fantastic. But. It revolved around comparisons between Great Expectations and Rosen's father's life. I haven't read Great Expectations, and so a great deal of the message of this essay failed to reach me. 
  7. The Reading Revolution - Jane Davis. Davis describes the Get Into Reading programme she developed for The Reader Organisation in 2002, and explains the magic of reading aloud in groups. No need to worry, I'm with you from the start on this. My own real introduction to literature as a living breathing animal was in a performance poetry workshop run by Joelle Taylor of the Poetry Society back in 2010 and it used many of the same ideas as Davis describes here. At the same time, much of my continuing engagement with literature comes through the Craftlit podcast, at the core of which is a section of a novel, read aloud, and thoughts on it both from the podcast host and from listeners. When Davis quoted John Clare's I Am, one of my absolute favourite poems, she had me hook, line and sinker with her. Towards the end of the essay, she makes the argument that the loss of religion from everyday life "has led to a poverty of language, and thus to a poverty of contemplative thought and feeling" - I totally agree with this. The change in language use is one of the effects of the loss of religion about which I had thought the least: we usually focus on the lack of community. 
  8. A Bed. A Book. A Mountain. - Jeanette Winterson. This essay turns mainly around the idea that, no matter what physical place we are in (and no matter how we feel about that physical place), we can travel to a place in which we feel more comfortable through books. It contains the beautiful sentence "When I can find a language for my feelings I can own them and not be owned by them" which went straight into my journal. There was one part that I wasn't particularly happy with - she writes that ADHD is a consequence of not reading rather than a disorder. Hm. I read loads, and I can concentrate fine when something is interesting, but a dry textbook or similar when there's stuff going on not just in my peripheral vision but right in front of me... that's more difficult. So I don't buy that assertion. 
  9. The Dreams of Readers - Nicholas Carr. This essay revolves around two ideas of reading: the transformative power of reading (after Ralph Waldo Emerson) and the immersive, languid, pleasure of reading (Montaigne). Personally I tend towards thinking that these are two types of reading, and that some incredibly great books lead the two to be combined (or that rereading books which were transformative the first time is pleasurable). Carr also talks about the link between the words of a book and the actual paper object of that same book. 
  10. Questions for a Reader - Dr Maryanne Wolf and Dr Mirit Barzillai. I thought this was an excellent choice of essay to end the collection, because in many ways it goes back to the start, exploring the connections that have to form in the brain to enable reading. 

Overall, I really enjoyed making my way through this collection of essays. My copy now has plenty of margin notes and underlining, and it's definitely earnt a long-term place on my bookshelf. I'd highly recommend it!

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Stop What You're Doing and Read This! Vintage Books, 2011

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