Calderdale Readers’ and Writers’ Festival

It’s hard to discuss the importance of reading without resorting to well-used ideas and phrases.  Reading can transport us; it can transform us; it allows us to see the world from different perspectives.  For me, personally, reading is – and always has been – a crucial part of my life; I’ve written about it before in The why of reading.  But there’s a social aspect to it, too.  In a time of austerity and cuts in public spending, with arts funding squeezed and libraries under threat, it’s even more important to recognise the role that reading can play in our socialisation as human beings in the world.  So, personally, I don’t care if these things sound over familiar, because they’re true for so many people.

In the last few weeks I’ve attended events in places where reading thrives but where that perhaps isn’t recognised.  Last weekend I went to Sowerby Bridge library in Calderdale for a ‘Meet the Author’ afternoon.  The librarian who hosted me told me she’d been agitating for ages to be able to hold an author event there: usually they happen further up the Calder Valley, she said.  She’s right.  Readers’ days have always been an important aspect of the work of libraries.  They encourage people to get together and share what they’re reading. They support the readers’ groups that are based in libraries.  They introduce new work and new authors.   At Sowerby Bridge I met a group of delightful, insightful and engaged readers and I left feeling re-energised and in awe at how libraries keep going with so little money, largely through the goodwill and dedication of staff.

Photo by John Jowett

Reading was also top of the agenda at an event during the inaugural Wakefield Literature Festival.  I joined fellow Yorkshire- based writers Martyn Bedford and Alison Taft in a panel convened by the writer-in-residence, James Nash, for a Readers’ Afternoon.   It was a brilliant, inspiring event.  And reading was precisely the focus of the day.  ‘What books influenced you in childhood?’ we were asked.  ‘What have you got waiting by the bed?  Why does reading matter to you?’

One of the most moving parts of the day, for me, was listening to the testimonies of three readers – of different ages and from different contexts – who stood up to talk about why reading matters very much to them.   Michael Brown, just 15 years old, talked about his passion for the graphic novel and how it’s an underestimated literary form.  Cynthia Dickinson (now retired) spoke honestly about the fact that she hadn’t particularly been an avid reader.  Yet, for her, working with disaffected teenagers, she found that books could bring them alive.  Another reader, Nic Irwin reeled off a dizzying list of the places she’d visited this year through reading fiction.  Transportation indeed.

Photo by John Jowett

And here’s the thing: reading, and talking about reading, crosses generations.  It connects us, gives us common ground. It can divide us, too, if some book groups are anything to go by.  It allows us a glimpse into what it is to be human – at least, for that individual, in that time and place.

Why does reading matter to you?