The value of reading

Yesterday was World Book Day in the UK. That’s quite a funny concept, rather isolationist as the rest of the world seems to celebrate this in April instead. I have no idea why.  But it got me thinking, not about the awful outfits children wear to school, but about the power of words to inspire and shape our lives.

I am writing this praise of finding the story amidst the rubble of the everyday. The power of reading and having free access to libraries is central to keeping this opportunity for everyone.

I’ve worked in the arts, making sure Government listened about the value of public funding and understanding culture’s contribution to society. But libraries have long been a problem and sadly one that’s only getting worse. Cutting non-statutory services at a local council level mean that libraries are the first services to be changed and absorbed. If you have limited finances how can you value something that doesn’t produce revenue or save lives? This has long been the conundrum of local councillors and battle ground for library campaigners.

I can only start this as the person I am today. The person who walked through Westminster last week and gave a book to a guy who spends most of the days sat outside the Sainsbury’s reading. He likes Lee Child books that are in his words “pretty exciting, I’ve read them all”. He’s homeless. When he’s not in the shelter during the day, he sits and reads. I could describe this act of reading as his lifeline, an escape from an existence on the streets that to most of us would be unbearable. But those aren’t the words he said to me. He just said he liked reading when we had a little chat.  I see him there on these blindingly cold days so I brought a couple of action thriller paperbacks we had on the staff room shelf. They were on the shelf which I assume acts as a bookswap, but doesn’t have a sign telling me what the deal is so I have assumed it is acting like a library of sorts. I leave books there every so often and take the odd one away.

But underneath all the actions of the everyday I am also the person that I started off as. I mean, in that, the child standing in front of the shelves of Crown Street Library in Darlington which is now being threatened not with closure, but something worse – a move into a Leisure Centre involving not just a reduction in stock and archive, but an act that will abandon (and sell) a beautiful building that was given in trust to the town to educate and inspire us all.

It’s a place stacked with books. Those books I gazed on were not mere papers and dusty smelling pages and words I couldn’t yet form in my mind. They were worlds breaking open, doors to push into, to peer into, explore and be part of. More importantly, books offer spaces you can claim as your own. Of course, parents play a huge role in literacy. A reading family is important for a child to appreciate the value of words, literacy and imagination. What do you think happens when a child learns that those shapes on a page formed words and a language that was new and fresh? To me, and to millions of others it was like standing in front of a million possibilities.

If you were a kid that grew up like me in an average school, in an average northern town, what was expected? I imagine not much. The lines between traditional occupations and class are more complex than ever – and I like many of my peers are the first generation to go to University from families that could describe themselves as solidly working class. Yet, I now sit in that muddled place of earnings, lifestyle and education that puts me firmly in the middle classes.  Despite the fact that boards of FTSE 100 companies are now more diverse than ever, we are still are faced by huge barriers to social mobility.  There is less diversity of educational and social backgrounds in more liberal fields like the leaders in publishing, the arts and media.  47% of all authors, writers and translators hail from professional, middle-class backgrounds, compared with just 10% of those with parents in routine or manual labour. But yet, we all read.  It isn’t an act that marks out status, and crucially the UK book industry is thriving.

How this is reflected by published authors? Obviously diversity is still a major issue.   If you listen to Kit de Waal’s exploration of this in a recent Radio 4 podcast it shows, Where are all the working class writers? Writers beyond the white middle-class are not reflected in bestsellers or awards. And yes, it is also important to talk about regional divides and class, as well as gender and race. Newsflash – they don’t need to be grunting stereotypical tales of northern grit and determination, or plotting angry voices of disillusionment.   Read Kerry Hudson or Lisa McInerney to see that being a female working class writer is worth reading and celebrating.

But more needs to be done to allow new authors the time, money and space to write from a place that explores these margins. Possessing talent is not enough alone, having the social capital to network and get the attention of the agent gatekeepers is a challenge.The hallowed privilege of affording to write and earn money stops most talent dead in its tracks.

What would schools and colleges be without creativity and literacy?  They become hollow halls of educational expectations.  Kids now spend so much time with screens and games, swiping mindlessly in a fog of self-obsession. They are tested and told, and tested again. Streamed and taught, not to think and create, but to imitate. I have a distinct memory in junior school, on a summer’s day. The windows are open in Ms Blands classroom and there was an abandoned car in the playground that the police were due to remove. Joyriders had left it there during the night. We were told to stay away and play on the other side of the asphalt playground marked with neon painted lines.  Perhaps I was 8 years old – like a sponge soaking it up. I couldn’t focus on the story Mrs Bland was reading us about Kings and Queens in the middle ages because the real story was unfolding outside that room. The music blaring (kingston town by the fine young cannibals),the battered car, what it meant to be there in that moment, with the wonderment of danger so close and not acknowledged. That’s what good literature and a creative education inspires: inquisitive questioning and imagination beyond the walls you live in.

When I was 15 I walked into a library ready to give up, I mean really give up. I really hated school. As a lost teenager, where do you turn? You discover something edgy like Jack Kerouac’s masculine beat-down adventures, Irvine Welsh’s monstrous drug taking anti-heroes and Anne Sexton’s raw poetry like a rare gem in the dust. Hide yourself in music and fanzines, and all the wild literary ideas your favourite bands quote – these weren’t in bookshops, they were in libraries. Here you find the words that make your life real and devour them. Like good friends you met and since marked the shape your life.

As I teenager I read Plath’s Bell Jar and Joan Didion’s essays – I fell in love with America, politics, cultural history and feminism. But I didn’t see my own experience reflected there. It wasn’t in English books like the Famous 5 or the Secret Seven either, or even in any of the Point Horror trash books me and my mates devoured and swapped as keen pre-teen readers.  All written by and about people far removed from my own world.

I am sat in Bromley Library writing this – contrary to my belief, it is not the quiet place of reflection I was seeking. Every computer is taken and there is man talking loudly on his phone. A man three chairs down from me loudly opens a packet of crisps and starts munching handfuls of them between deep breaths as he studies his books. I wonder if I can say ‘SSSSHHH’?  Is that even allowed? 10 minutes later 20 adults arrive with a variety of bundled babies and toddlers who start assembling in the children’s area for story-time. THEY HAVE INSTRUMENTS! IT GETS VERY LOUD! Although I came here to write – I am still writing yet surrounded by comforting sounds. People use and appreciate this Library. Its shelves are stacked and busy. They apply for jobs on the computer, tapping away on blank pages and writing emails. Retirees, students and writers avoiding the cold and enjoying the warmth here. I value this place for what it is and what it represents; opportunity.

Books are not always escapism, like all good art they helps us find meaning and answers in otherwise unreal times. And that is life-saving.

A summer reading list

Everyone loves a reading list, maybe. I didn’t really start off with a list or even any grand intentions for my capacity to spend time reading, although I did wonder whether a 100 book challenge for these six months might be fun. But soon realised the pain of compiling one might take the joy out of it all. So my reading list is a kind of organic ‘see what happens’ and a bit whimsical, but always open to suggestions and recommendations. Thankfully I was generously given a kindle voucher which has been my savior! 😉

So this is some of what has been keeping me busy over the past few months, and I think it is almost on the order I read them. Given that I read Zorba over a 2 week period and its less than 250 pages I wouldn’t exactly say I am powering through these!

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazanzakis – a beautiful, heart-breaking and insightful read by the Cretan author. If you have seen the film, or even just think about the Zorba Dance whne you think of Greece, I implore you to also read the book as it is a marvelously poetic piece of work. The novel contrasts the intellectual life of thoughts and words we get from the narrator, with the actions and mayhem of Alexis Zorba, who becomes the inspiration for the narrator to realise he must live life to the full. This is where G and I get the ‘be more Zorba’ mantra from. Also Kazanakis writes the novel with a Greek protagonist narrating which actually works much better than the downtrodden English man in the film version. It’s a must read for anyone who wants to understand some more of this beautiful county and its changing landscape in Greek rural society in the late 1940s. It’s not a ‘fun’ read but it’s a great adventure nonetheless.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – amazingly well written autobiographical book by a brain surgeon from the US. It charts his life and death after learning that he has terminal cancer, the thought processes it takes to accept and challenge his fixed ideas about his life plan. The beauty of his memoir is in fact how Kalanithi learns to how to live by accepting his own death.  I heartily recommend this to anyone looking for something contemplative to read and think about holding on to precious moments. I bawled by eyes out for at least the last 10 pages. Amazing and life affirming.

Death by Any Other Name (short stories) and For Now: Notes on living a deliberate life by the Greek author Daphne Kapsali were quickly devoured over days! Beautifully written, thought provoking short non-fiction life reflecting pieces mostly set on the Cycladic island of Sifnos. Her first self published work 100 Days of Solitude is a collection written when Kapsali gave up her life in London and spent 100 days in Sifnos, writing a hundred little reflections on being herself and creating the freedom to live as a writer.  You can tell I love it, huh?

Talking of books based in Greece there seems to be a theme emerging. I downloaded The Illegal Gardener by Sara Alexi – quite a good fictional story set to a backdrop of an English woman escaping to Greece after a divorce and finding an unexpected alliance with a gardener she employs and befriends. He is an illegal immigrant from India and it contrasts her life of ease with his painful journey and struggle. I also powered through Girl Gone Greek by Rebecca Hall one afternoon at the beach. Perfect accompaniment  to waves lapping at the shore; a light-hearted tale of an English teacher spending the summer in northern Greece and discovering new things about Greece and challenging her own ways of thinking. On a recommendation I downloaded Passing Thyme by the journalist  Gordon Coxhill who it seems lot f people in Syros know as he spent many years living in the 90s – it’s a nicely written book, and captures a time before many people ventured here but probably only appeals to people who know and love Syros, or those who look back fondly about ‘the good old day’s’ of Greece’. It is well written and evocative, but has some ‘tittle-tattle’ aspects of people he knew and I can imagine not all were favoured by his rendition of events when it was published. It’s pathos and tragedy reminded me of “This Way to Paradise” by Willard Manus, which is of a similar memoir style but set in Lindos, Rhodes in the 1960s.  Whilst in the ‘Greek’ phase I was gifted a paperback copy of Who pays the ferry man? By Michael Bird, its based on his 1980s TV show set in Crete as an English man returns to find lost love and settle old scores after fighting there with the Greek partisans during WW2. I’ll honestly say I hope the tv series was better than the books – its incredibly predictable and a bit stale!

 I also powered trough the Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan; again a perfect feel-good tale when you need a fascinating page-turner with mystery as well as romantic twists and turns.

I have also dipped back into Dave Eggers who I love his earlier work like  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), which is his memoir about raising his younger brother in San Francisco following the deaths of both of their parents, as well as Zeitoun, based in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and You shall know our velocity.  So with good confidence, I read The Circle from 2013. It was a suburb contemporary novel about internet data dominance in a fictionalized silicon valley social media giant. A great thought provoking and timely read about reality, technology and the internet’s dominance in our lives. I have read that is is now a film starring Emma Watson as the protagonist Mae…mmm, I don’t think I‘ll rush to see it. So feeling in an Egger-esque mood I then picked up The Heroes of the Frontier, not quite post- apocalyptic but set very on the edge of societal breakdown, his narrative is led by a tough female mom of two, excellently characterized and like Mae in the Circle, Eggers seems to be able to tap into the female psyche and write strong believable protagonists, and is something his writing suits.

The Girls by Emma Cline was just outstanding, and I know I am way behind the curve as this was touted as the summer read of 2016! Cline is incredibly talented, whether she is worthy of the status bestowed upon her by publishers only time and follow up novels will tell.  But here she captures the heart of teenage rebellion in her masterful fictional retelling of the 70s cult Manson murders. It’s creepy and complex, the dark scenes of distress that really get under your skin with the way she characterizes female teenage desire and obsession. I can’t recommend highly enough!

There has been  a few  false starts with books that I hope I will end up finishing such as A Brief history of Seven Killings by Marlon James (just didn’t grab me enough) and Zero K by Don Delillo (I struggled with empathizing with the strange protagonist in a sci-fi tale of brain preservation, felt coldly unemotional)– both had such good promise (and rave reviews).

I am just about to finish the mammoth American Gods by Neil Gaiman – I quite enjoyed stardust and given that will be a TV show it is certainly getting mass-appeal. From the outset there is an enticing premise in this epic novel with Gaiman’s magical play on myths and legends – steeped in Norse mythology, Far Eastern legends and even leprechauns, Gods from the old world have been living silently in America for centuries and now threatened by modern monsters of worshiped by the masses, they must battle it out as ‘the storm’ is coming! Sounds quite far-fetched, but its protagonist is a mortal ex-con named Shadow, he seems like an archtypical muscle hero but as the story unfolds Gaiman weaves him into a fairly interesting character. Perhaps this will make me want to watch the show too – the novel is quite episodic with grand battle scenes, so I expect it will translate quite well to TV.

Other books I am itching to read this summer are:

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman
  • Capital by John Lanchester (a friend gave it to me so I have to read it)
  • Eleni by Nicholas Gage ( a Greek classic)
  • Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
  • We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

I think the kindle works well for some books, but I do enjoy the feel of a real book in my hands. Luckily, there is also a book swap in the village so will definitely sniff some books out there too!

I’d love more recommendations, especially classics I should try. Why not, I think I have the time…