Friday 4 September 2009

Why bother reading?

The future of reading: A public value project, prepared for Arts Council England by Creative Research

On the Culture Wars ‘About’ page is a quote from that well-known criminal genius Lex Luthor about people being able to unlock the secrets of the universe by reading the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper. Reading this, one might be forgiven for thinking that Mr Luthor works for the Arts Council, given that in August it published this research document The future of reading [PDF], which seems to value the act of reading more than what is actually read. So from the Arts Council’s point of view the chewing gum wrapper might well be preferable.

The future of reading is yet another of those documents about reading, books, libraries, etc that on the surface shows much promise. After all, poor literacy and the impoverished thinking that attends it confront us most evenings when we turn on the television. Surely there is room for a piece of research that aims to understand the experience of reading and develop a role for ‘creative reading’? But the document is ultimately dispiriting, as it completely ignores the issue of what is important about the things we read. Its fundamental assumption is that the mere act of reading ought to be promoted, not as a basic skill to those who cannot read, but as a valuable experience to those who choose not to read. But is it so valuable when much of the reading matter on offer today (including the report being reviewed) is not worth the paper it is printed on?

The focus group interviewed by Creative Research (on behalf of the Arts Council) provided a number of quotes that are liberally repeated throughout the document, and one quote in particular – from an ‘unenthusiastic reader’ seemingly unable to face the prospect of reading about the early life of the man who gave us Lily Savage - illustrates my point:

’I had an autobiography bought for me for Christmas, the Paul O’Grady one. It’s just sitting there.’

Perhaps I shouldn’t comment, since I haven’t read Mr O’Grady’s autobiography, but part of me is not surprised that potential readers of his work are unenthusiastic. He may be a sort of housewife’s choice on the telly, but when it comes to literature there is so much more on offer than a laughter-and-tears story about growing up in Birkenhead. (It is interesting that several reviewers of this book on the Amazon website say that as they read it they could ‘actually hear’ Mr O’Grady saying the words, which to me implies that O’Grady has failed to raise himself above his own specific circumstances, and certainly not written something that might appeal to Everyman – but that may well have been his intention.)

However, this is not the place to attempt to revive the Western canon, and advise readers Leavis-style to direct their reading efforts at the more significant classics – Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Conrad, Henry James and DH Lawrence – in the confidence that if these are absorbed then the rest can be safely ignored. What must be said, though, is that if reading is going to be promoted on any scale then some sort of debate must take place about what is important to read. The fact that The future of reading does not ask this fundamental question puts it some way behind previous initiatives such as the BBC’s Big Read in 2003, and renders it pretty uninteresting to read.

The bulk of the document is concerned with finding out why people read. The usual motives surface: escapism, stimulation, and gaining knowledge (whether about Kierkegaard’s response to Hegelian philosophy, or about the times of the number 9 bus the document does not say). As escapism is given the most coverage in the report I will assume that this is probably the main perceived benefit. There is nothing actually wrong with this at all; I love to escape (to green-jacketed Penguin crime novels) as much as the next man. But in fact ‘escape’ is the wrong word (or if it really is the right word then it puts reading on a par with inebriation). We should recognise that in writing a book an author will always convey something (whether intentionally or not) about the world in which we live, from which there can be no temporary escape.

The meaning of a book turns not on how unrelated it is to our lives, but on how, despite it being about something or someone we have never before experienced, it connects with something inside us, here and now. In finding something out about something which appears alien, we find something out about ourselves. And so grappling with the meaning of a piece of literature is no academic act; it simply involves keeping your head while you throw yourself into it all the more. Anybody who reads more than a couple of books a year knows that they have gained a better understanding of their current situation from having read what they consider to be a good book.

Unfortunately, since the myth of escapism holds sway, the authors of The future of reading believe the key to a good book is a good story, so much so that anything loosely story-like (such as even a computer game) is given precedence over non-fiction. It may well be that in a couple of years you will find that your local library has removed yet another bookshelf and replaced the books with computer games, the playing of which is as valid as reading, provided that players ‘escape’ to another world. But my son could have told me that Grand Theft Auto is better than Great Expectations. I didn’t need the criminal geniuses at the Arts Council to tell me that.

As you might expect, this escapist emphasis comes back to haunt the researchers later on. After seeing a good story - very loosely defined - as the main impulse behind reading, the researchers struggled to get the members of the focus group to accept the idea of ‘creative reading’ (reading as an thought-provoking experience as opposed to reading simply to get information). It was hoped that ‘creative reading’ might develop into a theme that could be used to promote reading, but those being interviewed sensed an undertone of coercion behind the term: ‘Creative, that’s like saying “must”...’

Oh dear. However, after a bit of cajoling, the term ‘reading for pleasure’ was settled on as a compromise, and we may well see a celebrity or two promoting this relatively bland concept over the coming months. Well, my son takes his pleasure from Rockstar Games, and his reading of their computer games might be the best such a promotion can hope to achieve. Others might prefer a chewing gum wrapper. And who could complain, if escapism and pleasure are the criteria for choosing your reading matter?

The future of reading research project was a wasted opportunity to challenge ordinary people to justify why they liked certain authors and books. Without that sort of debate, the act of reading will remain a very private act, with each reader setting his own criteria, and opportunities for wider discussion of written ideas therefore limited. But starting such a debate is not an impractical suggestion. We need not begin with a demand for the reading public to turn its attention to War and Peace. We could start small and build up. So let me get the ball rolling by asking whether there is any point to reading the Paul O’Grady autobiography at all?

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