What does reading means to us? What did it mean to us as children? A new collection of essays, Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!, with contributions from, amongst others, Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Mark Haddon and Michael Rosen gets its teeth into these questions. Geraldine Brennan discusses.
At first this collection of essays struck me as a companion to The Library Book (more essays in support of public libraries by Lionel Shriver, Alan Bennett and other famous literary names). Nothing I could disagree with, and likely to be read by more people who could not disagree with it. However, the arguments in Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! get under the skin and ambush the brain in ingenious ways. The common thread is what reading means to us, why we do it and what can get in the way. After only one or two contributions, a re-evaluation of one’s own reading habits and attitudes is inevitable. The more attached you are to your image as a passionate and committed reader of great works, the more of a wake-up call this is.
To my shame and horror, I realise that I – a books professional, no less – have been ‘off reading’ for the past couple of years. When I worked long office hours I read two or three novels a week for pleasure, besides books that I was reviewing. The same time for reading is available to me as a freelance but I increasingly only read what must be read. That is still a lot of reading, but it’s not reading that feels nourishing to me as a human being. Training as an actor means I speed-read plays and books about the voice and acting techniques, which require much more spent practising than reading. Plus I am in a constant low simmer of anxiety about ‘keeping up’, as I call it, with children’s literature.
Reading for pleasure
The last time I read for pleasure was at Christmas when I re-read Great Expectations to keep up with the TV adaptation (Gillian Anderson! What were they thinking?). I have lost that devil-may-care streak that once made me sidle off for an afternoon nap with P G Wodehouse or Graham Greene.
Mark Haddon, in his contribution to this energising collection, reminds me that this is a temporary condition and nothing to worry about. Like Haddon, I was last ‘off reading’ fiction as a teenager. Like him, I found Jean-Paul Sartre frustrating (but it looked so good with my black polo neck). All I can remember reading in the sixth form was Harold Robbins and the Daily Mirror, but I still became a journalist and got a literature degree. Like Haddon, I can’t read well when my mind is troubled, especially when it is troubled about not reading enough. But his reminder of what reading does for us (‘This is what film can’t do. The sense of being inside looking out’) and his insistence that we accept what books alone can’t do for us (make us into better people) make me closer to a renewed ‘on reading’ phase than I was.
Jane Davis, founder of the Reader Organisation, has arrived at a way of shared reading that has been proved particularly suited to all kinds of troubled minds: reading aloud slowly in a group, interrupted by the members’ comments and responses. The text is as new to the group leader as it is to the members and the shared reading is as beneficial to accomplished and committed as to less confident readers, Davis argues in her contribution: a key purpose is ‘building relationships out of communal meanings’. I wish my next task, reading the Carnegie shortlist, could be practically accomplished in this way, and that it was open to every child and teacher faced with a set text.
Michael Rosen’s moving essay is about the meanings that the text of Great Expectations held for his family as voiced by his late father, a superhero in the cause of empowering children through stories. The voices of Magwitch (‘all my cemeteries are Magwitch cemeteries’, says Michael Rosen today), Jaggers and Trubb’s boy (I’d forgotten him), as read aloud on camping holidays, underscore a family history of social mobility, searching and loss.
The Rosens’ Great Expectations sessions reminded me of my introduction to classic novels at seven or eight, through my mum’s recollections of film versions she’d seen. Stop What You’re Doing is the perfect text for a shared reading group. Expect nothing except to proceed slowly as each new insight triggers more.
Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! (978 0 0995 6594 9) by Mark Haddon et al is published by Vintage at £4.99 pbk.
Geraldine Brennan is the former Books Editor of The Times Educational Supplement and a freelance journalist.