Sunday, 5 February 2012

Stop what you're doing. Keep calm. Read a book.

Preaching to the choir? Celebrating a shared passion? Marshalling the defence of what makes us human?

Why publish a book called 'Stop what you're doing and read this'? Why contribute to it? Why demand that people make time to read essays about the value and importance of reading fiction?!?  The book has become ubiquitous in my circle over the last month or so. It's on several desks at work, it's been reviewed in the papers, become a radio 4 book at bedtime and it's also getting a fair bit of blog coverage

Stop What You're Doing And Read This!…

I enjoyed the essays - and there are passages that strike a chord with my experiences and hopes as a reader. I'll re-read Blake Morrison's 'Twelve thoughts', and loved the idea of books as real daemons in Carmen Callil's section. I was struck by Tim Parks' 'Mindful Reading' and the difference between the experiences of looking at a picture, listening to a piece of music and reading a book. 
There is no artefact as such: unlike painting or sculpture, there is no image to contemplate, there is no object you can walk around and admire. No one is going to say you must not touch. No alarm will go off if you get too close. 
You don't have to travel to enjoy a piece of writing. 
And there is no performance, either. Strictly speaking. Unlike concerts of plays, you don't have to queue for tickets or worry whether you're near the front. 
You can't take a photo. 
Then a book has no fixed duration. Unlike music, you don't have to respect its timing, accepting, along with others, an experience of the same length. 
You can't dance to it. You can't sing along. 
Instead, there are signs on paper. Or on a screen. 
We can change the size, or shape, or colour of the signs, we can alter their distribution on paper, on the screen. [...] We can read these signs at whatever speed suits us, stopping and starting again wherever we want, for however long we want [...]
But to be honest, I'm not really sure why the book exists. It's way too dry and earnest to persuade non-readers to read, and it's not a patch on other 'bookish' books which offer insights into books or suggest and inspire future choices*. And although there are undertones here which are getting at public policy (the importance of libraries and/or how children learn to read properly), I don't imagine that the book will lead to a swelling and expression of public opinion to change decisions. So while I really admire the Evening Standard's Get London Reading campaign, the point of this book mystifies me.

* for example it's not a patch on Ex Libris (I LOVE the insight into the relationship milestone represented by merging two book collections!), it's not a memoir of reading, it's not a list of recommendations. 

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