Thursday, 10 June 2010

Summer Reads

Reading is generally a quiet, solitary art form, its drama taking place inside one’s head rather than in the physical world around us. A book is judged less by its technical acumen than the extent to which we lose ourselves in the events being recounted, the way in which the author creates a surrogate world to which we can escape.

Yet reading is not a passive, one-way activity. It’s a marriage between the words as they are on the page and how they are interpreted and brought to life by the reader. The process of reading is one of projecting ones experiences and perceptions of life onto these words, adding an additional dimension to the two-dimensional page. As a result of this, our reactions to a book are not solely dependent upon the book itself. Whether we like something or not is not based on its absolute quality, but a more complex set of interconnecting factors that encapsulate the entire reading experience, from what is happening at that point in one’s life – thoughts, feelings, political orientation, other books read recently – to the chair you are reading it in, and whether there is music playing in the background or not.

It is often said that “life gets in the way” but when it comes to reading that is just not true. The story of a book is only partly written by the author – the reader brings with them the rest. There is a wonderful chapter in Bob Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles, in which the young Dylan travels around Greenwich Village staying with people and reading whatever he finds on their bookshelves. Through the books he reads and his reactions to them we come to understand things about the world he was living in, the person he was becoming. It’s a thrilling chapter, and one in which is contained all the possibility and optimism of his youth. On that note, there was a recent biography of Oscar Wilde which took the form of a journey through the books in his library. The academic practice of analysing comments written in the margins of books as a means to understanding an author is a well developed one.

Stories surround almost every book I’ve ever read. While they may not have wider significance, they will always be inextricably linked in my head with the books themselves. The summer I fell in love, for instance, was also a summer of great literary discovery for me. First it was The Amber Spyglass, part three of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, read beside a pool in Menorca with thoughts of all-conquering love running through my head. Then it was a breathless devouring of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, open-eyed with amazement at all a book can be. My first Salman Rushdie novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, was read on my honeymoon in Barcelona a few years later, in between power-cuts and while watching the Athens Olympics on Spanish TV. The summer before university, bored and eager to leave home was brightened no end by reading the first four Harry Potter books in quick succession.

This is all by way of saying that reading matters. It doesn’t matter what one reads, but rather the experience of life that is contained within that reading experience. This is never more prominent than at this time of year, when readers have the mental space and time to indulge. Summer is the perfect time to lose oneself in an enjoyable, stimulating, and well written book. It is for this reason that Writers’ Centre Norwich, for whom I work, together with libraries and bookshops across Norfolk, has just launched Summer Reads, a collaborative community reading project that seeks to bring readers together, not just to share six fantastic books, but to share stories about reading them.

It’s all about getting more out of reading. There are opportunities to meet the authors and hear them read from their work at events, join a unique travelling Book Club, share thoughts online through Facebook and Twitter, take part in competitions, and download exclusive content on each of the books.

The books themselves cover fiction and non-fiction, and are set variously in a small village in Ghana, apartheid South Africa, a tropical island off the coast of Australia, Christian summer camp, Oxford and the North Norfolk coast. They are,
•    The Lessons by Naomi Alderman
•    Summertime by JM Coetzee
•    The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper
•    Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell
•    The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson
•    Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

I’ve reviewed five of them here over the past few months, and will review the final one, The Lessons by Naomi Alderman, next week. In my humble opinion, they are all well worth reading in and of themselves. But Summer Reads provides so much more than that. It is a chance to meet new friends and take reading out of one’s head and into the world. It is a means of sharing and shaping the stories we tell about what and how we read.

At the heart of this is a conversation about books and reading. Over recent years reading and literature have gained in social popularity as more and more people seek to share their reading experiences with others. Book Groups continue to prosper and there are Literary Salons springing up all over the place. The Shoreditch House Salon in London, for instance, regularly attracts more than 250 attendees to its mix of bibliophilic merriment and free drinks. Literature Festivals have never been more popular, and literature is increasingly significant in summer music festivals such as Latitude and Glastonbury. Reading Weekends too are the latest development, providing the time and space to read in peace, but also the camaraderie that is often absent from reading.

It is all part of a re-appraisal of literature that places the reader at the heart of reading. The rise of blogs such as this is an excellent example and the internet has made these sort of projects possible in a way that would have been far harder twenty years ago. Reading will always be a quiet art form, and this is one of the great attractions to it. One can take a book anywhere and read at almost any time. Reading provides escapism and space to consider ourselves and our world in the light of that which is presented on the page. But we can enhance this by getting together and sharing the books we have read. I’m incredibly proud of Summer Reads and eager to share the books with readers the world over. But more than that, I’m delighted that readers are getting the forums in which to celebrate all the wonderful adventures that books can take us on.

For more information about Summer Reads, visit

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