Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! By Mark Haddon, Michael Rosen, Zadie Smith et al

 

Not having enough time to read is a common complaint.

But as this collection of essays by 10 committed bibliophiles  attempts to show, reading should be an activity as regular as brushing your teeth. Read a novel, they urge us, because it will enable you to travel in time and space, learn about falling in and out of love, growing up or growing old. Read  a poem because it will “run a cable into the heart”. Read, because it  will transform your life and even alter the circuitry of your brain.

As manifestos go, this is heady stuff. But the enjoyment of reading can be a more problematic affair than this evangelising suggests. The most interesting essays are those that explore the obstacles that stop us from losing ourselves in a book.

The experience of childhood reading seems the key. Tim Parks, like many fellow-contributors, might well have once agreed with the young Molesworth that “ALL BOOKS WHICH BOYS HAV [correct!] TO READ ARE WRONG”. For him, school was the place where you read Hamlet before you were ready for Hamlet and a time when Cliffs Notes proved more revelatory than the set text. For novelist Mark Haddon, it all went pear-shaped when he borrowed Camus’ The Plague from the school library and “singularly failed“ to understand why “so many older and more intelligent people had clearly enjoyed it”.

For others, early reading was a more passionate and instinctive  activity, and public libraries a lifeline. Books kept Jeanette Winterson’s “rough childhood” at bay and enabled her to find a path “home”; while Zadie Smith is ever grateful for parents who, in the mid-Eighties, tried “covertly to move the  entire contents of Willesden Green Library into their living room”. Michael Rosen still remembers the pleasure of being read Great Expectations by his father over the course of a camping holiday in Yorkshire. 

In a volume of pithy writing  and fierce advocacy, these authors  debate whether books should be read on Kindles or at carrels, out loud or in the privacy of your own head. Philip Pullman is long. Life  is short. What’s the answer? Stop what you’re doing and read this!

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