How to free the written word: protest, and freedom in literature: Week in Books column


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The Independent Culture

Tonight at around sunset, a book burning will kick-start the London Literature Festival’s meditation on a dystopic, post-literate future where reading is an act of rebellion. Or at least, an imaginary book burning with a conceptual pyre in the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, around which a dramatised reading of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 will take place. The audience are invited to bring their favourite books to this Brave New Bookless World, where even Fifty Shades of Grey is samizdat.

The event will be followed by “actions” by authors demonstrating and debating the liberty, or otherwise, of the written word. It’s a counter-intuitive way to begin a literary festival – by considering a future of burned books. Bradbury’s fiction on outlawed reading is not all that far-fetched, of course, and conjures a spectrum of real associations, from the destruction of the Library of Alexandria to Pinochet and Hitler’s pyres, up to contemporary Koran burning and Jeanette Winterson’s childhood distress when her mother finds and burns her stash of “ungodly” literature.

Writing too can be condemned as an act of dangerous rebellion, such as in the case of Elif Shafak, the bestselling Turkish novelist who has faced the prospect of prosecution in her homeland; she will be reading from her new book at the Southbank. And Chen Xiwo, the Chinese novelist championed by PEN who sued the Chinese government for banning his work; he is talking to British journalists about his experience next week. Two examples of brave defiance in the face of threat and censorship.

What’s also worth considering, though, is the inverse, when reading or writing serves as an act of rehabilitation, and liberation, in the “unfree” world. On Thursday, the London Literary Festival will showcase award-winning writing by offenders, secure patients and detainees, and hear former inmates talk about using writing in custody to achieve a kind of freedom within. This to me sounds like an extraordinary form of psychic liberty, the kind that creates a window in the mind to offer a limitless view stretching ahead, from which to look beyond the bars. The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s recent changes to books for

prisoners led many to speak out; authors recommended books to inmates in the face of this bureaucratic draconianism. But it is not only for authors to recommend and in a summer column I wrote for our sister paper, i, I asked readers to send in suggestions. I vowed to report back and belatedly, I can say that among the blizzard of responses I found in my inbox, no two titles were the same.

Prisoners’ writing/reading groups make me think about the intersection between physical incarceration and psychic freedom, and the real dystopia if the two were reversed – if we lived in a “free” world without books, which brings us back to Bradbury.

It also makes me wonder whether the books we imagine taking to a desert island are in fact the same ones we’d take, or send, to prisoners. Those same books that provide escapism, even with a warm sea lapping around us, and that force us to confront the world we live in, when we can do nothing else but stare at it in a cramped prison cell. The Southbank’s conceptual pyre is a reminder of all that we have, and all we could lose, and that the latter isn’t as other-worldly as Bradbury’s book at all.

The truth about ‘us’

In a candid speech at his book launch, David Nicholls revealed that he threw away his first 35,000-word attempt at Us – his Man Booker-longlisted novel that follows the bestseller One Day. He sent the draft to two friends, who politely encouraged him to bin it. That story was perhaps too angry, he said, with harsh judgements being made in third-person narration. ‘Us’ is the far warmer second attempt.