The Why of reading

Last weekend, it was my turn to host our book group.  Earlier in the day, when flurries of fat, wet snowflakes started coming down in earnest, I worried whether anyone would actually make it up the steep, cobbled street into our village. In the end, the meeting went ahead: only one person cancelled and six of us sat around my dining table, eating pâté and salad and South African bobotje, followed by banoffee pie and Fairtrade chocolates, washed down with plenty of wine.

I joined my book group when we moved here, over eight years ago now; it was a way of meeting new people and finding my feet in a new place. Over the years the constitution of the group has changed – members have left, others have joined. At busy and stressful times some of us have taken a ‘sabbatical.’ I’ve had periods when – for various reasons – I’ve missed successive meetings and lost touch with the reading. But I always go back. If it weren’t for book group, I’d never see the other women because our daily lives don’t coincide. The meetings have become a sort of touchstone, seeing us through joyful or trying times: problems with ageing parents, the leaving of grown-up children, changes of jobs, ill health and (in my case) the publication of a novel. There’s something steadfast and remarkable about this relationship. We’re bonded by these experiences of talking about books but also – undoubtedly – by the food, which we do very well. Usually we plan in advance who’s bringing each course. But even if we don’t, it always works out: it’s plentiful, healthy and delicious.

Our novel of choice this time was Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English. It’s a book that seemed to be everywhere last year – in the news for the bidding war that secured its publication; on many a prize list; a Booker-shortlisted debut that touched on something right at the heart of British culture. In the group, our opinions were polarised. One person abandoned it, unable to cope with its brutal subject matter (and as an ex teacher in an inner-city London school, she is very familiar with the world it draws on). Some of us read it ‘with the brakes on’, hearts in mouths, waiting for the worst to happen.  Some saw the end coming; for others it was a shock. We agreed that Kelman has created a unique voice in Hari (even if we weren’t always entirely convinced by it), a warm and remarkable young protagonist, and a horrific way of life, which is exacerbated further by Hari’s sheer optimism and wonder at the world.  So, all in all, a worthy read – even if we couldn’t say that we ‘enjoyed’ it.

This led on to what – for me – was the most interesting discussion of all: why it is that we read. What do we want from a book? One of the group (who awarded Kelman’s novel 8 out of 10) said that though it was a great book, she’d loathed the experience of reading it. What she wants from a novel is to be uplifted.  And while Pigeon English may be many things, an uplifting read (in the sense of being ‘cheered up’) it surely isn’t…

I tend to think of my own reading as having different registers. There are times when I devour a book for diversion: to be entertained, taken out of myself. On holiday, for instance, or in the bath, or when I’m ill and revisit old favourites, like familiar slippers that are worn in and comfortable.  I do this kind of reading lying down, mostly, curled up somewhere comfortable, often with a duvet pulled around me (unless I’m on a sunlounger by the pool, obviously). There are other times when I like to be stretched and extended.  Reading classics is like that for me; it requires more.  Sometimes I read this type of book sitting at my desk. I take notes, scribble in the margins. I feel like a scholar, and I’m feeding myself in a different way: learning, pondering, questioning.

Both these registers are for me a kind of ‘uplift’ – one kind lifts my mood; the other goes some way towards elevating my mind (if that doesn’t sound too pretentious…?). But, in both registers, I’m absolutely transformed. Like the earliest humans, whose experience of storytelling was to watch, transported, while the shadows from the firelight flickered on the walls of the cave, life is somehow illuminated. We’ve come a long way since then, of course. Fast forward thousands of years: a group of six middle-class women meet in a village in Yorkshire to discuss a novel set in inner-city London. We’re changed by the experience, even if we picked up the book, entered the world and couldn’t continue.

Granted, this period of history – in the UK, a wealthy country in the civilised world, where food is plentiful, resources are (pretty much) unlimited and there is freedom to think and read and share ideas – is one of the most privileged of all time. We need to acknowledge that we are the lucky ones, to have the freedom and ease to read these stories, and that stories have not always been so easily come by. There are those, of course, who have been tortured for reading (and for creating) fictional worlds. Lucky us, that we can be armchair travellers and return to the safety and comfort of our lives afterwards.

All the more reason to read: to be unsettled, to be made uncomfortable, to be reminded of our own privilege and to be made aware that stories – in whatever guise – act like a mirror, reflecting the multifarious ways there are to be human.

Feel like sharing your views?  Tell us why you read…








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