Chapter 1: This Reader is Not Alone
We don’t tend to think of reading as a skill or a sport, but if it was a sport I would probably have a medal in it. Reading was really the thing that I most liked to do as a child and it still is. I would choose it above anything else.
In lots of ways, reading is more real to me than the world. The characters in books are real to the point that I slightly forget that they are characters in books. As a reader I feel engaged and involved.
It wouldn’t surprise me if I’ve read Pride and Prejudice a hundred times. Often I’ll just open it randomly and read to the end. People often ask how I read so much. It’s actually quite easy – I just don’t watch telly or do anything else. I read books, it’s the only thing I do. If I ever follow my therapist’s advice and get another hobby, then I’ll be a very different person.
I find books a gazillion times safer than the real world. But books also show me how to cope in the real world as well. I don’t know anything, I don’t think, that I haven’t learnt from the pages of a novel. Mainly fiction, a bit of narrative non-fiction but mainly fiction. If I ever know anything about anything it will be because I have read about it in a novel.
In life I am always looking for resolution. Fiction has tricked me into thinking that is what it should be like. I remember when I’d really screwed up my life – I worked in that bookshop for about 18 months, most of it fairly unhappily; I liked working in the bookshop and I really liked discovering there was something I could do, but for a lot of the time I was really quite unhappy – I used to think I’m in the first chapter of a chick-lit novel, the chapter where everything is screwed up and the heroine has to be taken down before you can start the rebuild. But where’s my fucking rebuild? I’m just stuck in the first chapter! Where’s the next thing?
I felt I’d been put in the wrong book. I didn’t want to be in the tragedy. And I didn’t clock until later in life that making decisions based on the narrative integrity of fiction actually isn’t a good idea. There have been several times in my life when I sort of made a decision based on what the me in a novel would do. But of course that does tend to be often the more dramatic course of action, not necessarily the most sensible thing to do as a person.
There’s something about learning about life through reading, and the foreshadowing when you read. I remember reading Talking it Over by Julian Barnes – I love Julian Barnes – and thinking
I don’t yet have the experience to understand this but at some point in my life I’ll understand this. At some point I will be in some situation where everybody is loving the wrong person and I will look back and remember.
And of course it did happen and I looked back and remembered…but maybe I wasn’t in the role I thought I would be. I fear I’m probably a bit too far along the spectrum of finding comfort in reading. I don’t really think people should prefer books to the real world, and I suppose that’s the thing, I know that I do, really.
Where does it come from, this excessive reliance on reading? I’m not convinced it is a very sane way to think.
I am unusual in that my father couldn’t read and write, but my mother was very literate. One of my first memories is sitting next to her as she was doing her Open University degree. She would say, ‘okay, I really need to do this so I’ll sit down with my books and you sit down with yours. But when you’re really quiet we will read afterwards.’ I remember at that time we were reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. So I would sit and read my own book, and then we’d read Narnia together when she’d finished studying.
There were books in the house, and I had books as presents. It was always a treat to buy a book. Interestingly, where we grew up in Yorkshire there wasn’t a bookshop for miles around, but we would go supermarket shopping on a Friday night and I was allowed to choose a book and buy it. I often think about that now, because people are very snooty about books in supermarkets but that’s the thing, not everyone lives in central London near Daunts. I don’t remember the first time I was in a bookshop, but I won’t have regularly been in a bookshop until I went to university in Leeds.
Libraries though were the places I mainly loved to be. There was Snaith library in the next village to us, and I adored it. There was also a library at my school, and in both places I had a special dispensation that my mother had arranged that I could get out whatever I wanted.
The one thing my parents often say is that they couldn’t read me to sleep, because I would always want more story until the book was finished. I see that with my son as well, actually. We’re reading Harry Potter at the moment and I’ve developed a – frankly, I think, very brilliant – thing, which is that the chapters just end in too exciting a place and he then cannot go to sleep. So I read a chapter and the first page of the next chapter because then you take away that cliff-hanger thing. As adults the cliff-hanger is a device to make you carry on reading. But when you are reading to a child who can’t yet read to themselves, I’ve realised that the cliff-hanger is really cruel. He can’t bear Harry being left in that situation.
I’ve always associated with characters in children’s literature, particularly Little Women, and Anne of Green Gables. Anne is an outsider and she’s an orphan and she lives more in her head, so I completely identify with her. I still re-read Anne of Green Gables regularly. They end on a high with Rilla of Ingleside which is about Anne’s daughter, Rilla. Anne’s other children go off to fight in the First World War – I’m going to cry like a baby when I say this – but one of the brothers, Walter, is a writer and a poet who has odd visions and difficulties with reality. As a dreamy child and then a dreamy adult, I recognise kindred spirits in books and it’s a bit comforting. Rather than being the odd kid that talks to herself going down the street, I kind of think
oh I’m not alone.
There’s a line I really like – from a novel I was sort of writing and abandoned; a bit of a modern version of Anna Karenina in a way – and one character says to another, ‘well, what’s the matter with her? She used to be all Anne of Green Gables and now she’s behaving like Anna Karenina on acid.’ And that’s sort of how I see myself as well. There’s the Anne of Green Gables bit of me, and then there’s the Anna Karenina on acid bit.
It is interesting how identifying with characters in fiction isn’t tremendously logical. I have loved reading children’s picture books to my son. My favourite is Tiddler by Julia Donaldson, which is the story about a fish who tells tall tales. And I really identify with Tiddler. Or rather, I really identify with Tiddler and his friend, little Johnny Dory. I wouldn’t have anticipated that I would get such joy from a picture book, or that I would feel that a picture book about fish was sort of about me, but I do. Similarly the way Hilary Mantel writes Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies makes me feel she’s writing about me. I wouldn’t think I have a lot in common with Thomas Cromwell; he wouldn’t have been the character I would have picked out. And yet…
If I only had to say one thing about reading, it might be that reading makes me feel that I’m not alone. I feel really honest when I’m reading. With the real world I’m usually putting on some kind of an act – you have to, don’t you? If I didn’t I’d just lie down on the street and sob about the miseries of the world. The thing is I really love people, it’s not at all that I don’t like being with people, I love people – but I find the people in books more honest, too, because they’re not putting on an act for the world. You the reader gets to see through the act they are putting on, and know what they honestly think and feel. I get all the interest out of the situation without having to play a role.
I wonder whether reading makes us feel loved and respected? Surely that’s what we want as human beings, whether or not we know it. We want to feel noticed, loved, respected, safe. We want to feel held and seen by other human beings. And I’m just wondering whether actually reading a book you do slightly feel the author has done it all for you, personally. And that the characters are opening themselves up to you personally. So in that sense reading a book is both very very mind expanding, but possibly also kind of a luxurious gift to the soul. I’ve never thought about it quite like that before.
I think one of the reasons I like re-reading is because I can suspend critical judgement and it is more purely a pleasure. These days my first reading of everything is accompanied by questions: how effective is this? Do I like it? Do I like it enough to recommend it? Is this going to be one of my Editor’s Choices? At the moment I’m doing industrial levels of reading because I’m judging the Costa Novel Prize and reading January releases too. I love it. My identity is so tied up with reading that it gives me a lot of satisfaction that I have managed to make my hobby into my job. But I do look forward to doing slightly less. I’d really like to reread all of Elizabeth Jane Howard again. I want to read all of Elena Ferrante already, and I’ve only just read them the first time. I think I could just read and think about Elena Ferrante for a few months. As a reader and as a writer I find her unbelievably fascinating.
I take huge pleasure in reading.
Chapter 2: Quick Reads and the Act of Love
I think trying to bring reading to other people is an act of love.
I have given people that gift of reading a few times, including my dad whom I feel I hand-reared like an injured chick and I taught to fly like a falcon. I’m fortunate in many ways about him because he’s a wonderful amazing man. But I also feel he gives me an insight into illiteracy that most people don’t have. He was unable to read or write until he was thirty but he’s very intelligent, has been very successful in his life, is very confident, and very articulate. And it’s the little things, you know?
We used him in our Quick Reads campaign a couple of years ago and he was charming and wonderful and very motivated to do it. We went up to Salford to go on BBC Breakfast and were all miked up and about to go on when the very nice producer came in and said she needed us to sign the forms. It was two pages of very densely typed legal stuff that you have to sign and she put them down on the table in front of us, two each. I could instantly see my dad go really pale, because even though he reads well now, in that pressured situation he couldn’t bear the thought that he had to try and read this. He’s still a non-reader somehow deep in his heart. I wouldn’t dream of reading two pages of legal stuff that the BBC wanted me to sign before I went on, I’d just scrawl a signature, but he would be then nervous about it. So I just said ‘don’t worry, Dad’ and skimmed it, signed mine and pointed to where he should sign. What I found really interesting about that is that we were there to talk about literacy, we were surrounded by people who knew what we were there for, and it didn’t occur to anybody, nor did they notice, that it was a really uncomfortable thing to do to him at that moment.
Dealing with adults with low literacy is complex, because they have it so deep within them. It was years before my dad could go in a bank, because if you’ve lived a childhood of poverty where you felt disrespected, then it’s very difficult doing establishment things. I think about how it must feel trying to deal with your benefits being taken away from you when you can’t read and write very well. Any sort of bureaucracy is hard – I find being self-employed hard enough, even as a very literate person who doesn’t worry that the state is in some way out to get me. So imagine how hard it is for someone with low literacy who does not feel the establishment is their friend.
I made some mistakes with my dad along the way that were really useful to find out. He started by reading football biographies and said he fancied trying something else. I recommended Jane Eyre. And I now think what was I thinking? As a story, I think Jane Eyre is really good for someone who doesn’t read. But I gave him a copy of one of my university texts and it had a really long Introduction. Weeks went by and I asked him about it and he looked sad and slightly ashamed and guilty, and he said he couldn’t get into it. It turned out he didn’t know you weren’t supposed to read the Introduction first. So he kept getting to the end of page one of this scholarly Introduction and not wanting to read further. But isn’t that the most amazing thing? And that’s probably a better one than the BBC Breakfast story, of explaining how non-readers are.
I am Director of Quick Reads, and do a lot of work with reading in prisons. Quick Reads are shorter books commissioned from big name writers and written to literacy guidelines. My vision for Quick Reads is that they should be able to be read by a confident reader who wouldn’t even know it had been written to literacy guidelines. It is completely possible to do this because a lot of the literacy guidelines aren’t about what you as a reader would imagine. So some of the things we do are only use one point of view, and one time frame. We signpost what’s going on by using character names frequently and making it clear. Short sentences, short chapters. They can get more complex as you go through.
What I really love, the absolutely best thing I love about my job, is when people haven’t thought of themselves as readers and then they do. That is completely utterly magical and wonderful. I gave a speech at the House of Commons last year and talked about how that morning we had been at Brixton Prison with Roddy Doyle who was being interviewed by a prisoner for National Prison Radio. We gave everyone in the prison and in the House of Commons a copy of Toddy’s book, and I was able to say in the House of Commons that if they read it they’d be having a shared cultural experience with someone in Brixton Prison. Those two groups of people probably don’t have a lot of shared experiences, but this is one that they could have.
Something about being in prison talking to people who aren’t very literate about reading makes me feel it is what I was born to do. I know you could give me a prison reading group for ten weeks and at the end they will have all had a good time and lots of them will have become readers. I just know I would be able to do that face to face with people.
One of my favourite bits of evaluation ever was this woman who said that ‘the first time I tried to go to the reading group at the library I got too nervous and had to run away. But now I sit and discuss books as though I was born to it.’ And that just gives me the shivers. As though I was born to it. Like she didn’t think she was born to it, and she’s managed to overcome that and now she does. And that’s all to do with you know books in the house, seeing your parents read, knowing what books are for. But that is amazing isn’t it?
One of the great things about reading is that it also enables you to learn things. You can know everything when you can read. And you can access help with far fewer people knowing about you or having power over you. That’s not just reading books, that’s being able to find things on the internet. So if you are a woman in an abusive relationship you can read about how to get divorced. If you are someone who was abused as a child and you’re wondering whether you should do anything about it you can read about what is happening to other people who are doing that. And imagine trying to find that out without reading.
Reading is just such an important part of independence. Social independence, emotional independence, practical independence, legal independence.
Low literacy is interwoven with all other social ills. Bringing people to reading is partly about acquisition of skills so that they can technically do it. But for me I think it is actually more about empathy and making them feel comfortable doing it. The best thing that I do in my job is approach it with empathy. There are lots of benefits to reading for pleasure, but the pleasure bit has to happen before the benefits can get out of bed.
One of the challenges is that to get funding for Quick Reads is you have to talk about what the benefits of reading are. You slightly have to promise that if the government gives your charity this money you will make all these unproductive, illiterate people into model citizens. That makes me uncomfortable, because I don’t think it does anybody a service to downplay the complexities that there are around literacy and the way that it is interwoven with all other social ills.
There’s lots more charitable activity for children than for adults which is obviously right – because probably the best place to make a reader is with children. With Quick Reads I always feel what we’re dealing with is all those children that didn’t get an intervention. I don’t want to give up on the adults. There is something quite profound in trying to help adults regain reading.
I’m sure a lot of low literacy in adults is a combination of undiagnosed dyslexia and some kind of upheaval family breakdown. One of those things you can probably get over, but a combination of them is the thing. When we read case studies of people who have changed their lives, so often there is a dyslexia diagnosis in there. And so often the point at which their schooling went adrift, was to do with family breakdown. Which could be anything from the incredibly dramatic – what happened with my dad is his mum died and the family collapsed – or there’s a divorce and you change schools and you’re unhappy. I look at my little boy who is six and very happy and realise you wouldn’t have to do much to that child to screw up his educational future, his psychological future. He’s a robust happy little dude, but it’s a horrible piece of knowledge to see how fragile children are in their self-esteem as they are growing, and how exciting and terrifying the world is as they are learning to navigate it.
What I want to know is how do we have a more tolerant and empathetic society? I feel reading has a role to play in this.
Chapter 3 – Owning the words
I’ve always felt I own reading, probably because my mother gave that gift to me. But I didn’t feel I owned writing for a long time because I didn’t think people like me would really write books.
I’ve just published my first, The Last Act of Love, which is a memoir of my brother. As I was writing it, whenever I got stuck wondering who I was to ever think I could write a book, I was helped by Damian Barr’s book Maggie and Me, Sathnan Sanghera’s The Boy with the Top Knot and Nina Stibbe’s Man At The Helm: books by other people who didn’t grow up in houses where everybody was writing books all the time. Because – I think this is true for reading and writing – not feeling you can do them is all to do with associating the act with people like you.
When teachers asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up I remember saying I wanted to be a detective or an author – presumably because I was reading Enid Blyton or Agatha Christie. And I absolutely remember being told that just wasn’t a possibility, that if I worked very hard I could be a teacher. I’m sure all the teachers were very well intentioned, but it’s jumping over that hurdle. It’s taking that leap to think
somebody has to write books, why can’t it be me?
I recently listened to Front Row on BBC Radio 4 where basically two white men agreed with each other that all stories have already been told. I was in my kitchen chopping onions and I had to stop I was so full of rage. How would I feel if I was in a detention centre in this country, some thirteen-year-old child learning English well enough to listen to the radio and hear those men decide that all stories have already been told?
When I was writing my book I came across two things: one was that I found some people who were researching the area of my experience –having a relative in a persistent vegetative state. I got to know them and they interviewed me for their project. But they also sent me some transcripts of other people they had interviewed. And it was the act of reading the experiences of the other people that changed things for me: I felt this massive, very physical, visceral thing. Because I process life through reading about it. And I realised that was why I had been so lost, because there had been nothing to read. In reading what other people said about it, I had this sort of
[deep breath] everything’s okay now
I really like the fact that my book exists, because sometimes I just will read a little bit. Even though I wrote it, I’m now reading it as a comfort read. Not all of it, because lots of it is really sad, but I re-read the last three chapters every so often to remind myself that I wrote it, and that I came out of that time. Something about it being written down in a book means I trust it more than I trust my heart. Even though I was the person who wrote it down and put it in a book.
The other interesting thing that happened to me with my books was that the first draft had a whole other strand about reading and responding to books, taking comfort in books and having a dialogue with books. There was a whole thing about reading Levels of Life by Julian Barnes and grief. And reading A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride and responding to that. I thought I was just writing it for me and would put it in a drawer, so I didn’t really think about the reader. But somewhere around realising that I was not alone and that there were lots of families of lots of people in persistent vegetative state it occurred to me that there would be people out there that would read this book not because they were a reader and wanted to read a literary memoir, but because this was the only thing available to them. I imagined a person wanting to be able to read something that would help them get over the fact that their son was lying in that condition and I thought that person does not need to read me twatting on about Julian Barnes. That changed the way I thought about it in a really profound way. I wanted the book to be written as simply as possible.
So it wasn’t written to literacy guidelines, but where I could I did try to remove barriers to comprehension. I’m going to write a novel now, and I like books with difficult narratives, but I don’t think I want to write one. I’m too aware of those men in the prison group who have enjoyed my first book. I don’t want them to pick up my second one and think ‘what the fuck has happened to her?’
That’s the thing: since writing my own book I connect more with real people. I think in showing myself to someone else honestly there’s a chance that they will honestly be with me, and that will be a connection beyond the sort of fakery of modern life. I’m lucky, I’m starting to make the connections that used to only exist for me in novels.
Interview conducted in partnership with Edinburgh International Book Festival. With thanks to Roland Gulliver and Casi Dylan for supporting the project.