Chapter 1 – Working the Heart
I get a sense of great beauty from reading. I am in awe of how people can shape experience in a way that makes even ugly experiences beautiful. That they are shared with you as though confided by a friend is certainly a part of this beauty. Emotional sincerity is something I seek out in books. It is my way of being sociable, oddly, and of keeping my mind sharp and my heart – well, I don’t want a sharp heart! – but my heart working, engaged.
‘For me what makes something great is that it engages with your heart and with your head and with the struggle with words.’
I’m interested in being the best reader that I can be. And I think that role in society is undervalued. It’s almost as if you reach a point where you can technically read, you are literate, and people think it’s job done. But I feel that it is a life’s work to read well and truly and synthesise what you read into how you choose to live. I see it as a very active role and I would hope that what I take from my reading informs my actions and my morality. Maybe that’s what I mean by sharpening my mind and practicing using my heart better: reading as a kind of moral compass. Every new thing that you read is one more example of what it is like, or what it was like, to be alive. I think that’s why I love George Elliot: she says that ‘ideas are poor ghosts of feeling’, that feeling is the real thing from which all thought follows. Reading starts in my heart and tugs my thoughts along with it. Reading is a very practical kind of morality. Literature is a way of developing your feeling and therefore your thinking.
When I first moved to Glasgow I joined a choir and that too has the power to bridge gaps and bring people together. But music communicates at that gut level and I like the enabling limitations that literary language has. Music can sweep you away whereas there’s more of a struggle with reading and I think once you get through that the benefits are more tangible because you can embed that literary language back into your own vocabulary, your emotional vocabulary. It’s precisely that grey area that I think only literature can inhabit. That limbo between expression and understanding. It’s in that balance.
I don’t think reading is my religion, but maybe it’s a useful kind of replacement for it. I really want to be the best reader that I can be. And to do justice to the amazing work that’s out there. Books are a kind of furniture to me, it is comforting to have them around. I often write in my books, and I like for them to be quite messy; I break the spine, turn pages over. I like books as symbols of the process of reading. I like opening old books and finding sand in them, or terrible stains that make you wonder what you were eating when you read it. Books are hosts of experiences.
Perhaps that’s what a reader is: someone who is open to experiences.
I find George Eliot to be like a kind teacher. She shows you things and very clearly says
‘look, this person is flawed, but aren’t we all?’ Daniel Deronda is a book that stays with me, especially the character Gwendolyn and her sense of not quite knowing where she belongs and the difficulty of finding your place once the veil is lifted from your eyes. She is definitely someone I sympathise with.
And of course the character of Florence in Dombey and Son, the little girl who is treated so badly by her dad. Dombey is a monster to her, and yet she has this capacity for love that you want her to give up on, just let it go, move on, and don’t keep giving yourself to this father who is just awful. But by the end he gives in to her love for him, and I found that powerful. I think that is something that I would like to live my life by. It could be seen as submissive, particularly for a woman to respond that way to a man that has treated her so badly. But I think there is a real power in her capacity to love.
The Reverend John Amis in Marilyn Robinson’s books is another. I think he’s amazing. And Jack his son in Home. They’re both very good men. Jack is an alcoholic and a criminal and everything else but he’s trying to find his own way to be good. I loved their struggle to be the best version of themselves. The Reverend and the criminal.
There does seem to be a lot about goodness that I look for in books. Novels in particular give you access to that, they give you access to the inner lives of people the way you don’t have access to in life, even with the people that you love and know the most. Because of that I find reading a novel is an exercise in understanding people and in understanding myself.
Chapter 2 – Bringing People Together
I was born into a house of books and stories. My dad worked as a freelance photographer and editor for the Welsh Books Council and was often taking photos of books for catalogues. Books were pieces of furniture around the house.
I was read to, and I listened to a great deal of audio books when I was younger as well. And I think that particularly because of my dad’s work we got quite unusual stories. The ones that stand out in my mind are Welsh translations of Otfried Preußler’s book Y Lleidr Hotzenplotz (‘The Thief Hotzenplotz’) and Paul Biegel’s Y Capten Bach (‘The Little Captain’). I loved these books because they had amazing illustrations. Hotzenplotz was a terrible guy, but you loved him and in the illustrations he had this really scratchy beard and he was obsessed with snuff. And I got obsessed with the idea of snuff from his addiction!
I also got obsessed with Sweet Valley Twins as a teenager. For years and years every Saturday we would go to W.H. Smiths and I would get the latest Sweet Valley Twins book and gobble it up. They were a vital part of becoming the reader I am now: the path to George Eliot. What I got from them was just absolute pleasure.
‘my real awakening as a reader came after university when I came across The Reader Organisation’
But aside from that, for quite a long time during secondary school I never really saw myself as a reader. I was good at Welsh literature and English literature and they would be always my favourite subjects at school. But at home I didn’t read around. I think I was focussing on doing well at school rather than reading for pleasure.
Then at university I studied Anglo Saxon, Norse, and Celtic Studies. But I found the attitude to the literature we read very dry. We were looking at tales from the Mabinogion or Beowulf or these amazing old pieces of writing but approaching them as though they were just there for us to study the grammar or etymology of the words. I wanted the stories! I wanted to engage with and appreciate them as literature. So I switched to study English literature. And I think realising that I had taken the wrong path in what I was studying switched me on to reading as the thing I truly loved. I started to read much more broadly, and for my own good as well, not just my studies.
But my real awakening as a reader came after university when I came across The Reader organisation. I’d moved to Manchester after graduating and was looking for something to do and I heard of this volunteer day for something to do with reading – that’s all I knew. I met Jane Davis, who founded The Reader Organisation, and had my first shared reading experience. What you do is read a text aloud – in this case it was the Doris Lessing story ‘Through the Tunnel’ – and you talk about it, engage with it, share your thoughts, your responses, your feelings to it in your own time and as a group. I remember leaving that session walking on air. It felt like a lightbulb moment. Reading had always been very solitary before that, but here I saw how you could use literature to connect with other people. I ended up getting a job at The Reader Organisation and working to develop their training courses to teach people to do this particular method of shared reading.
It’s amazing to read with people who don’t see themselves as readers or would never have picked up a book of literary fiction. Seeing how they respond in such a sophisticated way. When you do an English degree, you come to know what to look for, and that can disallow you that sense of surprise or being swept away. Your analytic brain is switched on to such an extent that you can miss the heart of the writing. So it’s been really fascinating having to put that to one side and re-experience literature as though it were the first time every time.
I learnt an enormous amount about literature and about people during that time. And I feel that a lot of the things I’ve recited and shared over recent years have lived on with them as they have with me.
One of the things that I struggle with is that the words ‘literature’ and ‘literary’ can be seen as exclusive. There is a literary mode that has unfortunately been hijacked by a certain kind of book, by an association with a certain social class or kind of education and I think that’s awful because it’s the most useful thing, the most useful tool we have to think about ourselves and outside ourselves.
I did some work a few years ago at a recovery college in London. There’s a movement in mental health trusts away from a clinical model of dealing with poor mental health and towards an educational model. They are opening recovery colleges where you can take courses in all kinds of things from smoking cessation to how reading can help in recovery. The staff at this college were fantastic but they subscribed to the widely held belief that any reading is good reading, and encouraged people to tell their own stories as much as possible as it encouraged a kind of biographical understanding of their own health. I don’t want to disregard that at all, it can be massively valuable, but I think that there’s a lack of courage in moving people beyond themselves and their comfort zone, towards an imagined state where you aren’t at the epicentre of a story. The more you read and listen to great stories and great writing, the more you can step out of yourself. Some of the best literary thinking I’ve come across has been from people in these reading groups who have no higher education and have often never heard of the author that we’re reading.
For me what makes something great is that it engages with your heart and with your head and with the struggle with words. I don’t think it’s something that limits. Lots of what I’ve been doing up until now has been making the best books accessible and malleable and available for everyone. It’s like Wordsworth’s silent poets, an innate and undervalued capacity in people for thinking through language, and thinking and feeling beyond themselves. I read Wordsworth’s Prelude and remember having this really weird wobbly feeling: the whole poem is about coming to yourself or coming to awareness and it tallied with where I was in my life. Still does.
I’m starting a new role at Edinburgh International Book Festival, and am quite excited to see how my relationship with books will change, because naturally the focus of the book festival is on contemporary fiction and new writing. On reading broadly as a form of cultural travel. I’m looking forward to getting a sense of how people connect with and communicate with each other through literature in this environment. I’ve just been to an event of Innu poets who had been working with Scottish poets, and that was one of the most moving things that I’ve been to in a while. They were responding to each other’s poetry, translating for one another then responding with another poem and it just felt that you saw those connections and those conversations beginning. I’m excited about bringing these conversations together in my work. I think that’s what reading does, and certainly what a festival does at its best: bring people together.
Some of the books that have been significant in my life
Chapter 3 – Between Language
I do think the languages we think and read in shape some of how we relate to the world. All of my education up until university was in Welsh, and I think when you grow up in a culture that’s labelled a minority culture (which is not accurate because when you grow up with it it’s your majority culture, your life) you grow up with an awareness that any interaction is an expression of a culture. My literary understanding is as informed by these formative social interactions and awarenesses as it is by the reading that I did early on.
I then went to university in England and so the language of ‘intellect’ and the language of the academic part of my brain has developed in English. That sometimes annoys me. I wouldn’t change the education that I got at university and all the reading that I’ve done for the world. But I don’t want a sense of one part of my reading to be solely emotive and to do with my experiences of family and growing up and the other part to be academic and intellectual thinking: I want to get that balance back. I want to be able to express myself in a literary way in Welsh as much as in English. I’ve got a little bit of a personal campaign going on to address that, so I’ve recently been going back to Welsh classics. I’ve researched and been setting targets! ‘I must read someone from 17th century’, or ‘I must read all of Daniel Owen’ who was a nineteenth-century novelist.
I’m also interested in reading things for which the context has changed. Religious poetry for example, or hymns: trying to find the value of them for my life. And again I think that’s partly a way of trying to connect with my parents or grandparents and my heritage; the things that are in their heads and the cultural cornerstones for them that are very different to mine. I feel the older I get the more I want to understand that cultural history, to understand what they carry with them. So lots of great hymns or religious poets like George Herbert. You could so easily throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I’m interested in what can be retained, the intrinsic value of this writing outside of the context in which it was created. Struggle is a good word. It’s true of my life as a reader as much as I imagine it must be in the life of a writer. I’m interested in the effort in things. In never ceasing from exploration.
That’s the excitement; it doesn’t finish. Reading is the work of a lifetime. There’s always more to learn and there are always deeper depths to plunge. To me reading has been a force of self-awareness and self-awakening. It calls on me to do things, to be active, and to live differently, although I haven’t quite figured out yet how to do that. Reading is a very serious kind of pleasure. But definitely still pleasure all the same.
Interview conducted in partnership with Edinburgh International Book Festival, in August 2015.