Thursday, 12 January 2012

Stop what you're doing and read this!...

... is a new title from Vintage, published to encourage reading. So I did stop what I was doing, which was reading, to read this book, on the train today. And mostly it was very worthwhile. The opening chapter, the best in the book, was by Zadie Smith entitled "Library Life". There was no mention of previous publication but I thought I had read a version of the chapter elsewhere. No matter, her article was one of the best pieces of advocacy for public libraries I've read. Tory Government Minsters should be strapped to chairs and made to read it. They'd still hate people reading books "on the rates" but at least they might be marginally ashamed. Might.

Zadie Smith described her own family's reading history, and the importance of public libraries in opening up the possibility of other libraries for her - the university libraries she frequents now. But she does not want to pull up the drawbridge behind her. She also sees that even with the university libraries and her private library in her private house that there is the call of spending an afternoon with a toddler in a public library, or the need to research your street in 1894.

Jeanette Winterson reminds us of other things the working class has lost - the brass band, the choir, telling stories down the pub, mending kit, walking - to force-fed adverts and consumerism. Nicholas Carr draws attention to what is on offer to the modern reader of Kerouac's On the Road - apps that come with maps, audio, video clips, slideshows, touchscreen interface. Great, "but I doubt it would have rattled my soul in the way my tattered paperback did." Finally I could have kissed Mark Haddon when he wrote that he often could not remember what happens even in some of my favourite novels, mentioning that he was halfway through the third volume of Proust before coming across marginal notes in his hand showing he had "read it before and forgotten everything". I'm pretty sure I haven't read Proust, but was so pleased to find that another reader just, well, forgets important books while still loving them. And he's younger than me.

I doubt whether any non-reader will be turned on to reading by picking up this book. But we need to remind ourselves of the importance and joy of reading, and this books is good reading and good company. Awful cover though, which is not illustrated here.

ps Five Leaves is a voice in the crowd in this book. Michael Rosen, in an article that was also published in the Guardian, talks about his father Harold Rosen reading aloud to his family, Dickens especially, and from his own memoir Are You Still Circumcised? - which we published, and reprinted, and foolishly allowed to slip out of print.

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