BBC Radio 4, 9-13 January 2012
For its Book of the Week slot, Radio 4 scheduled a series of
essays by five well-known authors and advocates from the publishing field, each of them taken from a recently published anthology
about the transformative power of reading.
In "Memories and Expectations," the poet Michael Rosen recalled childhood holidays
in Yorkshire, when his father not only read Great Expectations out loud to his family but inhabited some of the characters
as well. On various occasions Rosen's father would impersonate Jaggers; on other occasions Pumblechook. The boundaries between
'fiction' and 'the real world' were not only deliberately blurred, but Dickens' work was transformed into a social text, to
be shared and enjoyed among the tight-knit community of Rosen's family.
Jeanette Winterson's "A Bed, A Book and A Mountain," drew a suggestive parallel between
reading and climbing mountains in the Cairngorms. Both were arduous activities, requiring passionate (and often exhaustive)
commitment. However one's efforts would be rewarded by the enrichment of one's soul. Carmen Callil's "True Daemons" likewise
focused on the passion of reading: as a child growing up in Melbourne, she read the books in her late father's extensive library
with a sense of wonder. Throughout her life Callil has been immersed in books, which she considered a source
of comfort, a protection against boredom, and sources of enquiry as well as advice. She likened them to "the largest
defensive army in the history of the world," that guided as well as inspired individual readers.
Tim Parks' "Mindful Reading" offered certain ideas as to how a novel might
be best approached: while allowing themselves to be seduced by the plot and/or the characters, readers should try to maintain
their critical and/or evaluative faculties so as to distinguish between a 'good' and 'bad' work. He also suggested that reading
was a fluid process: one's reactions changed sentence by sentence, page by page. The series concluded with Mark Haddon's "The
Right Words in the Right Order," arguing that the experience of reading a novel was unique. Unlike film, a novel required
imaginative engagement, for readers to construct their own interpretations of words on a page, and thereby become authors
themselves. By such processes we discover what it means to be human.
Each essay was a dramatic performance in itself, offering suggestive views as to
why the experience of reading a novel might be considered so unique. Although some of the points could be disputed
(all texts, not just novels, require active engagement from readers and/or audiences), the series as a whole offered
a timely reminder as to why books - especially fiction - are still important in a world where the popularity of the IPad
and the Kindle may threaten the future of printed works. All five essays reminded us of how the act of reading
is a personal activity: so long as everyone - authors, publishers, and all types of reader - has the
freedom to pick up a book, consume it in their own way, and talk about it however they wish, then the future of the printed
text should not be in doubt.
The producer of this series for Heavy Entertainment was David Roper.