DEBRA ADELAIDE (ed) The Simple Act of Reading; ANTONIA FRASER (ed) The Pleasure of Reading. Reviewed by Suzanne Marks
These two collections give richly personal insights into how books and reading are critical to a strong and resilient culture.
To borrow Giulia Giuffrè’s metaphor for libraries and bookshops, entering the pages of these anthologies is like ‘entering … a box of chocolates that draws one further and further in to test and taste’. Adelaide and Fraser have brought together a number of acclaimed writers, Adelaide 21 (from Australia) and Fraser 43 (from the UK), to reflect on their relationship with books: how they have expanded their worlds and shaped their lives and what keeps them reading.
Both editions are veritable feasts of new worlds discovered and times remembered; of books’ importance in the growth and development of the authors, who tell of childhood memories of reading under the blankets by torchlight well after lights out, driven by their passion and engagement with the characters and their stories; a passion that has never left them. And of how reading, especially fiction, helped them grow into more tolerant and compassionate people than they might otherwise have been. Luke Davies captures this when he tells of Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, relating how his little admirer and fan, Jim, once wrote to tell him how much he loved his books and then out of love he ate Maurice’s reply card. Davies brilliantly interprets Jim’s desire to not only communicate with Sendak but to actually ingest the one who had brought him so much joy.
For The Simple Act of Reading the brief itself was simple: ‘To write about any aspect of the reading life that is meaningful to you, and will be to those interested in what makes writers tick.’ Contributors include Rosie Scott, Kate Forsyth, Malcolm Knox, David Malouf, Gabrielle Carey, Delia Falconer and Andy Griffith, to name a few. As the aim was to support young readers and writers through the philanthropically funded Sydney Story Factory, authors were asked to ‘concentrate on what and how they read in childhood or as young adults’. Adelaide has included a list of all books mentioned.
The first edition of Fraser’s The Pleasure of Reading (1992) included Margaret Atwood, JG Ballard, Melvyn Bragg, AS Byatt, Catherine Cookson, Germaine Greer, Tom Stoppard and Doris Lessing. Fraser’s brief to her contributors was also simple: ‘To describe their early reading, what did (or did not) influence them, and what they enjoy reading today.’ She asked all the writers to provide a list of their ten favourite books.
The 2015 edition adds five new writers born in the 1970s and 80s, including Kamila Shamsie (novelist), Emily Berry (poet) and the youngest, Tom Wells, who reflects on the 21st-century phenomenon JK Rowling, whose part in planting the reading habit in the young cannot be overstated. The authors’ birth dates range over 76 years and they were raised in countries as diverse as Canada and China, Ireland and India, Syria and Germany, from the 1930s on. The royalties generated go to the British charity Give A Book, whose largest projects benefit prisons and primary schools.
Despite their differences, Fraser finds common themes among her writers. Firstly, as with the writers in Adelaide’s collection, is the critical role of reading in childhood. Secondly, and to the relief of parents fearing their children are drawn only to ‘rubbish’, is that what children read is less important than reading itself. Hence the value of JK Rowling in this intensely digital age. It’s how reading stirs the imagination, not what is read, that is important. At age seven Doris Lessing learnt to read from cigarette packets while Simon Gray’s reading passion was sparked by war comics in wartime Canada. Hermione Lee’s ‘highbrow’ parents forbade her to read Enid Blyton, which of course she devoured even more passionately in secret by borrowing from friends with more tolerant parents. ‘The lesson given is that devouring books seen as less good does not preclude devouring books that are seen as more good,’ says Fraser.
Adelaide’s anthology also demonstrates that in spite of the diversity among contributors, some authors and books seem to take on a universal life, eternal despite changes in political and cultural values over time. Scoring high are Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Lewis Carroll and Mary Grant Bruce. Contributors mention the ‘lowbrow’, such as The Da Vinci Code and The Godfather, and the ‘highbrow’ (more of them) from ‘the greats’ like Jane Austin, James Joyce, Herman Melville, Patrick White and of course Shakespeare – and the lists go on. But all the books, whether children’s, highbrow or lowbrow, remind us that ‘a reader truly is a consumer ingesting the words in an almost physical way, hungry for anything and everything’.
At 11 Rosie Scott read The Diary of Anne Frank. She describes its effect as ‘electric’, as she too kept a diary and found comfort and self-validation in discovering that, like her, Anne secretly believed that her mother loved her sister more than her. In adolescence, Tegen Bennett Daylight (‘A Phone Call to Helen Garner’) finds in Garner the key to reading not just for story but ‘… for words. I could see the work. I could see the writing.’ This altered the way she saw the world and caused her to see her life as ‘lived now’, which has served her ever since.
Ruth Rendell attributes the scary fairy stories she read as a child to engendering her ability to frighten her readers, while The Water Babies started her on a life-long fascination with natural history. Tom Stoppard was not a ‘precocious reader’ but was eight when ‘the dam broke’ and he realised what ‘gripping stuff’ books could be. From then onwards he devoured them in sets: Captain WE Johns (Biggles), Arthur Ransome (the Swallows and Amazons series) and Richmal Crompton (the William books). He describes his reading as ‘conventional’ but ‘voracious’ – reading the ‘sauce bottle and cornflakes packet’ if nothing else was to hand.
Malcolm Knox mourns the passing of paper in favour of ebooks as travel reading. Without a cover visible, he no longer knows what the unknown other seated beside him is reading; therefore an opportunity to open a conversation is lost. He wonders if ebooks can cast the same enchanted spell over modern children as paper books did for him and suspects not, in spite of acknowledging their environmental benefits over paper.
For Germane Greer the catalyst for her becoming ‘an addicted reader’ was being born into a family with whom she had little in common. From a very young age reading was the only alternative ‘to a boredom so heavy and slow that it squashed my soul’.
Fiona McFarlane, in contrast to the ‘simple act’ of Adelaide’s title, muses on the complicated brain activity required for the act of reading; how we utilise different brain parts when reading poetry compared to prose, or when processing metaphor or grief at the death of a favourite character. ‘How can [the brain] be capable of so much all at once?’ she asks, and likens this to ‘going down the rabbit hole with Alice’.
Kamila Shamsie, raised in Karachi within the protected milieu of her middle-class Pakistani family, with restricted access to only one state-run television station, entered the magic world of her imagination through Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and Narnia. Through her mother she learned that Neverland – ‘second to the right and straight on to morning’ – was actually a series of small islets just off the coast of Karachi and called Oyster Rocks ‘by the unknowing’. By walking through the wardrobe to the land of Narnia and flying to Neverland with Peter and his shadow, she ‘learnt that novels reach further than their own writers’ imagination’.
From the warmth and generosity of spirit exhibited by these writers in sharing their deeply personal and richly evolved insights, we learn more about why books and reading are critical to the continuation of a strong and resilient culture. We also come to appreciate the part they can play in our individual growth and development into effective human beings with the courage and willingness to seek meaning and understanding from within our own hearts and minds and from the wider world we inhabit and share with others.
Debra Adelaide (ed) The Simple Act of Reading Vintage Australia 2015 PB 240pp $29.99
Antonia Fraser (ed) The Pleasure of Reading: 43 writers on the discovery of reading and the books that inspired them Bloomsbury 2015 PB 352pp $19.99
Suzanne Marks is a member of the Board of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library, dedicated to the preservation of Australian women’s writing. Her professional life has been in equity, human rights and conflict resolution.
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