Monday, 17 May 2010
Why I won't read Wolf Hall - Anne Rooney
I have nothing against Hilary Mantel or Wolf Hall. But the time has come to be more discerning than just reading something because everyone else has read it, it's piled high in Waterstones and I'm mildly curious.
How many books can I read in my whole life? Or, more usefully, my remaining life? Of course, that depends how long is left. Looking at my family's record, I might have another 50 years. If I read a book a week, that's about 2,500 books to go. Some of those books haven't been published yet.
I can probably list many hundreds of books I know I want to read, or re-read. Wolf Hall is long, so I might have to swap out a couple of short James Joyce books and a volume of poetry to give it a slot. Or never re-read the Moomintroll books or Alan Garner. Worth it? I don't know without reading WH, but I'm guessing that, for me, it's not. If I have to choose between Tolstoy and Wolf Hall, Tolstoy will get the gig.
Some things I have to read for work, or to keep up. On the list for work at the moment are re-reading Plato's Timaeus and Critias, CP Snow's Two Cultures, IA Richards' Practical Criticism, maybe a quick refresher on Empsom and Leavis, and finishing (for the first time) Francine Prose's Reading like a Writer. Actually, I wasn't counting the work reading in the book a week, so these don't need to take any of the 2,500 slots. But these books are relevant as I'm (re)reading them in preparation for my new role as Royal Literary Fund Lector (title may change), which starts in September. And that's also why I'm thinking about which books are worth reading.
Lectorships are a new departure for the RLF. All professional writers, the lectors will run reading-aloud groups in the community. Initially, there will be groups in Cambridge, London, Sussex, Somerset, Yorkshire and Glasgow. The idea is to encourage the development of critical reading skills. The groups may target specific groups - elderly people, single parents, dentists, accountants, ex-convicts, people with ginger hair - it can be any kind of group. Or they may be open to anyone. How the group is advertised and made up is left to the discretion of each lector. All lectors have previously been (or currently are) RLF fellows. That means we've all done at least one stint in a university, and this is a chance to work with people outside an education setting.
The model for the sessions is Socratic dialogue, with a good deal borrowed from the tradition of Cambridge practical criticism. Each session (one and a half to two hours long) starts with participants reading aloud the selected text – a short story, a poem, or a piece of non-fiction - and then discussing it: what effect does it have? how does it work? does it work? It means reading slowly, savouring the choice of words, pausing to see how the punctuation works, following the thread of each sentence and unpicking it, learning how writing works at a detailed level. We hope it will help people with their own writing, and enjoy literature more fully. Becoming a critical reader will also mean they are better equipped to read all texts with an eye on how their response is constructed and how they might be being manipulated. A country filled with critical readers would give our political leaders and large corporations a much tougher time.
But that’s not all. It’s likely that many people who come to the groups will already be readers. The groups will – we hope – introduce them to a wider range of literature than they might have found on their own. If someone comes to a group after reading Wolf Hall, maybe they’ll read Raleigh’s letter to his wife on the eve of his execution, or some of Wyatt’s poetry, or something else from Tudor England that will enrich their earlier reading. One of the larger aims of the scheme is to give literature back to the people – you don’t need a degree to read John Donne or James Joyce, you just need time and to know it’s there. The key to the success of the sessions depends in large part on picking texts that are sufficiently accessible to the group, sufficiently rewarding to keep people engaged and sufficiently varied, week on week, to win the hearts of the readers. It’s an exciting challenge.
So apart from which 2,500 books should I read before I die, I also need to think about which 50 or so texts I want to share with my Cambridge reading group (demographic undecided so far). Any suggestions?