London: Vintage, 2011.
This collection of essays about reading, with a forward authored by “Vintage Books” and not a named editor, is a self-proclaimed manifesto to, well, make you read this book and to make reading part of your daily life. The editors seem to have been pushed into action by a study of British schoolchildren and falling literacy rates. Here’s the thing: If you are in a bookstore or the library and you are in the literary essays section and you see and take home this book, you probably don’t need a manifesto about the joys of reading. I get a bit annoyed with the doomsday prophesies about the end of the book and of reading.
One in three teenagers reads only two books a year, or fewer, and one in six children rarely reads books outside of the classroom.
But that means that five out of six children do read outside of the classroom, right?
Stories and poems, for these thousands of children, are not a source of enchantment or excitement. Books are associated with school, or worse–they are associated with acute feelings of shame and frustration.
While this is certainly pitiable, I don’t particularly feel welcomed into the text by this kind of approach. The tone of the introduction to this collection of essays was thoroughly off-putting. Aside from the fact that they are preaching to the converted, the kind of rhetoric that relies on fear-mongering about the death of reading just does not work for me as a means to encourage more reading.
So, if you, fellow book-lover, are in the literary essays section of bookstore or library, and you take home this book, I suggest you skip the introduction because lots of great essays lie ahead. Zadie Smith writes about the enormous impact living 100 yards from Willesden Green Library had on her life. I love the kind of autobiographical detail she provides in bringing that library to life: bits of information to tether a writer to her world. Tim Parks waxes lyrical about the importance of enchantment, perfectly describing the holiday books often give me from my own racing mind:
It’s a wonderful thing to let go of your own way of telling yourself the world and allow someone else to do it for you. (69)
And Mark Haddon, in one of my favourite essays, adds a very measured message:
because the passion we feel about reading is so strong, and because we are good people, we sometimes fall into the trap of believing that books made us good people and that they can do the same things for others. This, I think, does a disservice to both readers and to the books themselves. Partly because of the snobbery implicit in the phrase “good books”–meaning, of course, the ones that you and I enjoy reading. Partly because there are so many things that can change lives: boxing, learning to play the piano, tending an allotment. … Talking about reading as the cause of anything is to get things back to front. It exists in the valley of its own making. It gives us pleasure; and our embarrassment about pleasure, our fear that reading is fundamentally no different from sex or sport, tempts us into claiming that reading improves us. But pleasure is a very broad church indeed, and we do literature no great service if we try to sell it as a kind of moral calisthenics. (90)
And, this, I think gets at my annoyance with the tone of the introduction. Reading will cause feelings of shame and frustration if it is prescribed, forced or served with a side of self-righteousness. Much better to approach a book with love than with duty, and that goes for book lovers and reluctant readers, however many there are.