Peter Batten celebrates the art of reading . . .
We can never know beforehand what will change us or indeed what kinds of change we want. A book can speak to us and never answer back; it can conjure up the past and the voices of the dead. But we never tell a book a story. Why have an analysis when you can read?
I began to be able to read at about age three. My grandmother was living in our flat, with lots of time on her hands, and she decided to teach me. Sadly, she did not live long enough to watch me become obsessed with books and then with ‘literature’. I owe her a great debt.
But why do I, and people far cleverer than me, like Adam Phillips, think that reading is so important? Part of the answer is in the quotation: a book, especially a work of fiction, can affect us in many ways. We step into a new world, almost as if we were dreaming, and this new experience can stir memories, emotions, desires, regrets, conjuring up the past and reviving our feelings about the living and the dead. “Only in the realm of fiction do we find the plurality of lives that we need,” said Sigmund Freud.
When readers enter that realm what do they hope to find? I was trained, as a reader and a teacher of literature, to enter with my mind on full alert, ready to ‘scrutinize’ whatever the author was offering. Such scrutiny requires close attention to every word, sentence, paragraph . . . Most readers do not bother with such intense attention. So what do they expect to learn, or what pleasure do they hope to receive from their reading?
One major group of readers are those who seek reassurance. They want to finish their journey through a fictional world with the feeling that their everyday world is just as they thought it was. However unusual their journey has been, they want to return with their beliefs, political, religious, social, etc, confirmed or even re-enforced. They will seek out those writers who reassure them and return to them time after time.
Another huge body of readers wish to dream. They will seek out those authors who enable them to enjoy their favourite fantasies. The possibilities are enormous. They may thrill to the experiences of James Bond, or even a female Jane Bond; they may enjoy success in every sort of career or profession. They may marry the man or woman of their dreams, or be flogged by them in some favourite scenario. Whenever these readers settle down for a good read they want to have their favourite fantasy experience.
I sincerely hope that there is another category of readers. Much of my life has been spent – rather arrogantly – trying to help them. They are those who hope to learn from the reading experience. To return to Sigmund Freud’s suggestion, they wish to explore the ‘plurality’, the richness of life and relationships. To achieve this they must read with their brains switched on. For a novel this means considering every symbol, every image, every phrase, every word. Some would argue that such close attention makes it impossible to enjoy the narrative, to enjoy the experience of reading. Others would say that it is hard to achieve a balance between such close reading and enjoyment. I disagree. Close reading should make you aware of the quality of the text you are reading and make you appreciate more intensely the experience which the writer offers. You are reading with your brain switched on. My first two groups of readers are reading with their brains switched off.
I know this is a very snobbish view, but I genuinely believe that reading a fine novel can make you more aware of the complex business of being alive and help you to understand yourself. Let me end with another quotation, this time from Leonard Mlodinov:
We choose our friends, spouses and lovers not just because of the way we perceive them, but because of the way they perceive us.
A great novel can help us improve those perceptions.