I was recently invited to give a keynote talk as part of a symposium on creative reading and writing with young people. The following is the text of that speech.
My name is Sam Ruddock, and I am a reader. (And also some other things including a blogger, a book critic, a prize judge, a husband, a cat father, and a Programme Manager at Writers' Centre Norwich where I produce our events and reading programmes).
Basically, I love reading. I love stories that take me on a journey I don't ever want to end, with characters it feels as though I have known for ever. I love reading that makes me think, that introduces me to new ideas, and that is all about the creative use of language. Reading is pure imagination.
I know I’m a bit excitable. But I make no apologies for being over-the-top enthusiastic about reading. Especially where it comes to young people. Because literacy has never been so important. There has never in human history been so much reading and writing taking place as there is now. The mass spread of the internet and social media has changed how we behave: where people once interacted with the world predominantly verbally, we now do so more and more through words on a screen. A young person’s life chances today depend on literacy: if you cannot read or write, you cannot succeed in this world. Literacy is to be the single most important thing we do for our young people.
Reading isn’t a tool for anything, but if it is, its a basic tool for literacy, which is a basic tool for life. But one of the ways that we will best encourage literacy, is to focus on reading for pleasure.
(When we talk about reading for writing, we essentially create a hierarchy where everything leads to writing. I’m not sure it is this way around. The Booker Prize winning author Eleanor Catton recently set up a fund in New Zealand to grant young writers money to cover time to read. It’s an amazing initiative – imagine being paid to read! But it has a serious and laudable intention, too. She felt reading was getting forgotten in the drive to write, to create, and to express oneself. And she felt that writers who didn’t read were likely to produce less interesting work than writers who did read. I share this as a challenge for us all – reading should be at the heart of our engagement with young people, not as an afterthought.)
There is only one way we will get people reading: if they enjoy it. If it gives them something they want or need. If it is rewarding.
I read to relax. And to escape from myself and the world around me and all the interconnectivity of technology. And I read to dive headfirst into the world, to learn about other people and the world around me. I like to read in the bath. It is a sanctum if you will, where technology frazzles and drowns and my imagination can billow steam-like around me. About 5 years ago I decided to rename our bathroom ‘the pub’ so that I felt less anti-social about the time I spend reading and now when I go home in the evening and say to my wife ‘I’m going to the pub’, it makes reading feel cool. And I like that, for even an enthusiast like me sometimes feels apologetic about reading. I need to read. If I don’t find time to read, I get stressed and frantic, I get grumpy, and I get self-involved. And what is interesting is that research increasingly shows that this is the case for many people.
- In a series of reports and studies over the last decade, reading has been shown to be of huge personal, social, health, and economic benefit. Reading has been shown to have all sorts of impressive qualities including:
- Enhancing people’s life chances, civic and social engagement, employment prospects, and quality of life;
- Busting stress and providing real health benefits such as delaying the onset of dementia;
- Reducing cases of reoffending in prisoners and those on parole;
- Improving theory of mind, a common measure of empathetic ability.
One of the things that interests me most about reading is that it is both retreat from the world, and the most active engagement with it. There is nothing I do in my life that so enables me to inhabit other skins and see the world through other eyes. Reading matters to me because it puts me inside the heads of other people, other lives, other cultures, other ways of thinking. Reading helps me see things differently, it makes me think differently, it complicates my point of view. I am a far better person for reading. Why not be enthusiastic about something like this?
I’m also fascinated by what reading does for people. So fascinated in fact that earlier this year I set out to interview readers across the UK about their experience of reading, what it gives them and why they do it. I want to get beyond the scientific research to uncover the personal stories about readers and reading, and I want to give readers a voice to tell their own stories.
There is a campaign I admire called 53 Million Artists. Like all great campaigns its mission is deceptively simple: to 'unlock the creative potential of everyone in England.' I recently spent some time with the founder of 53 Million Artists, a ridiculously talented woman named Jo Hunter, and asked her whether she considered reading an artistic activity. She thought for a minute and I could see her wondering how to say that no she didn’t. We kept talking, and she eventually set out the four linked activities that they encourage people to do when being artistic.
- The first is having an idea.
- The second is doing something. Reading is doing something. In reading we are co-creators of a story. But now it gets interesting...
- Number 3 in the approach to being an artist is thinking about what you are doing. This is really important. Thinking. Reflecting. An artist isn’t just someone who creates. An artist is someone who thinks about what they create. A reader artist is someone who thinks about what they read.
- And the fourth is sharing it with others.
I turned to her at this point and said: ‘okay, so readers are artists when they think about what they read, and share it with others’. And she agreed. When we think about creativity we often instinctively think about making things. We so rarely think about consuming something. But I believe absolutely that reading is active and creative engagement in the art of literature, and that great reading is an art to be developed. It is an art so long as we think about what we read, and share that with others.
So how do we get young people reading? It starts with how we think about and talk about reading. I have three tips:
1. Be enthusiastic. Break down that inner critic who says you need to call the bathroom ‘the pub’ in order to make reading cool. If you are that apologetic about reading, no-one is ever going to enjoy reading. John Waters has a great suggestion and language for this, he says: ‘If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. Don’t sleep with people who don’t read!’. A little judgemental, perhaps. But interesting.
There is a quote I love from Roald Dahl’s My Uncle Oswald, a not particularly successful novel he wrote in between The Enormous Crocodile and The Twits.
“I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be”
Useful advice at any time and for anything you love! But even more so when it comes to reading, an activity that society and formal education strives to tell young people is dull, boring, and only for school. Too often we are embarrassed to talk to young people about loving reading. We fear it may lose us their interest. We think it is easier to give people a pen and piece of paper and ask them to express themselves. That they will find that more fun. But this is our fears being projected; our failing not theirs. We cannot hope to change other people’s perspectives if we don’t change our own.
2. Don’t try to control reading. Reading is freedom. It is an adventure, and no adventure is any fun if you know where it will end. It doesn’t matter what a reader is reading now, only what they may go on to next. The best reader engagement projects don’t lecture readers about what they should and shouldn’t read, they create the space and framework and let readers run with it.
This is what Writers’ Centre Norwich has done with Summer Reads (in partnership with Norfolk Libraries) over the past 6 years. Each year we recruit a jury of everyday readers (this year there are over 90!). We give them a longlist of books (this year there were 150) and ask them to read. They read the books and review (ie THINK ABOUT) them. We gather all the reviews together, hold meetings for them to discuss the books (ie SHARE WHAT THEY HAVE DONE), and slowly work the longlist down. At the moment there are 60 books we are considering. Come January we will select the 6 that we promote during the programme. It is amazing to see how reading habits change given this space and encouragement, and in an environment where reading is cherished. We will receive more than 1000 reviews this year. In some ways, it is a more rigorous process than the Booker Prize.
So successful has Summer Reads been that we were recently awarded a large amount of money to evolve and grow in partnership with libraries in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
I’ve long harboured ambitions to run a similar programme for young people, working with school libraries and English teachers to build a network of engaged young readers. I’d love us here today in this room to consider whether there is a way of making this happen.
There was a great project that the Orange Prize ran a few years ago, to celebrate its fifteenth year. They wanted to conduct a poll to find the ‘best of the best’ of the previous 14 winners of the Orange Prize. But instead of employing the usual collage of writers, critics, and academics, they turned to young people. Six teenagers were recruited through Penguin’s Spinebreakers website, an online book community run by teenagers, for teenagers that has sadly recently closed. Those readers met, discussed the books, and eventually chose a winner: Fugitive Pieces by Ann Michaels, a truly brilliant book.
And this brings me on to my third suggestion for getting people reading:
3. Never ever undervalue readers, young or old. Never assume people don’t read and don’t want to read. Never talk down. Encourage up.
Had you asked me before this to guess which of the 14 titles would have most appealed to a younger audience, one of my last choices would have been Fugitive Pieces. It is lyrical and non-linear, it is challenging and distressing. But when you put your faith in people, when you give them the opportunity to try and to think and to share, they so often surprise you. This has happened again and again in my experience of Summer Reads.
And if you want to make reading fun, make it dangerous! There’s a great story I once heard about a mother who, when she was pregnant, built a shelf in her bedroom and placed all her favourite books there. When he daughter was young, she told her that she could read any of the books in the house, except for those books on that shelf. That was all. Years later, when the daughter was fully grown they were talking about reading, and the daughter said to her: ‘of course you know I read all of those books I wasn’t allowed to?’ and the mother turned to her and replied: ‘Of course! That was the point all along!’ She had succeeded in making great reading dangerous!
I love that story.
So, in summary:
- Reading is fundamental to modern life. More reading is done now than ever before. Never forget that when people say that reading is no longer cool.
- Reading is fundamental to writing. But it is valuable enough, enjoyable enough, in and of itself. Never try to squish reading into other outcomes lest you lose what is great about it.
- Don't think it is easier to give people a pen and paper and encourage them to write than it is to give them a library card and encourage them to read. And if it is, think about what that says about how you are talking about reading.
- Be passionate. Otherwise, why should anyone believe you?
- Support exploration. Take a journey together. Reading is an adventure.
- Don’t dictate, empower.
- Never ever underestimate people.
Reading is not elitist. Great reading is and should be for everyone. And it is creative and artistic. Do not hide from your responsibility to share the joys of reading with others.
And share it with me too. For there’s a dirty secret at the heart of this talk. This year has been my worst reading year since I’ve been an adult. I’ve really struggled to find time and space to read. I need you to tell me about the books you’ve loved, to recommend to me, and then to recommend to everyone else here today.
Thank you for listening. And happy reading.
Now... come with me...