Book Review - Stop What You’re Doing and Read This

Haddon argues that the novel will endure because it’s the human experience, captured expertly by writers in just the right words placed in just the right order. No other art medium can match it. When we read, we are so immersed in the novel our brains believe we are experiencing the plot itself. We develop empathy and the ability to see life outside our own sheltered sphere because we climb into books and live a character’s experience. The very best writers make it so real to us we enter a mental place where we are living beyond ourselves. I also loved Tim Parks’ “Mindful Reading”, which I’ll sum up simply by quoting the final words in his essay: “The excitement of reading is the precarious one of being alive now, intensely mentally silently alive, and reacting from moment to moment, in the most liquid and intimate sphere of the mind, to someone else’s elusive construction of the precarious business of being alive now.” I underlined that paragraph, wrote “Yes yes yes” in my copy, and then circled it. On the emotional front, Jane Davis’s essay “A Reading Revolution” contains an incredibly moving passage about a group reading a poem in an unlikely setting, and their reaction to it. I won’t reveal that passage (and freely confess that I cry when I am inspired!), but I’ll sum up her essay with her own quote, too: “It is easy to see why, when dealing with literature or life stuff, people think it better if we stick to the surface of things and splash around up there, lightly pretending there are no depths, when the depths seem neither unplumbed and terrifying or, on the other hand, intimidatingly aesthetic, to do with a specialist, professionalized and narrow form of education”. Yes. That. Davis goes on to suggest that our society is afraid to face the inner life, we see it as a secret, a shame, something to keep quiet about.
Literature (poetry!) speaks our universal, silent fears and speaks them beautifully. It unites and inspires us and says: “Why is the soul such a quaking secret? We will be richer if we acknowledge our inner life together, Mrs. Dalloway style.” You see how the above essays seem to encourage reading deeply? For both intellectual depth and emotional acknowledgment? That’s what this collection is about. Reading for life, reading for depth, reading to transform our society. I think where the collection is a bit weak is that the audience for the collection is unclear until the final essay. Some essays seem to be directed at the British government, some at avid readers, some at non-readers, some at writers. It’s difficult to know who is supposed to be reading the book. One could say that the audience is whoever stops to pick up the book, and I’m actually comfortable with that, because I’d love to see everyone read it. But the collection could have been stronger with a bit more cohesion. (Though, in aftermath, I can see now how it all leads to the final essay).

I also wish that people outside Britain had contributed essays, though I appreciate that this is a manifesto written in reaction to the symptoms of a fading literary life in Britain in particular. I think the collection could have been even more universally impactful though, with voices representing the life of literature as it stands around the world  today. All of this said, as a reader, I very much appreciate this collection of essays, and I have a feeling avid readers would agree with me that it’s worth the read. The bits about “mindful reading” and the transformation of the brain and mind (and soul) through literature, were the most impactful, for this reader. The personal anecdotes put humanity itself into the collection. The final essay, which addresses the very real concern that innovations in technology will weaken the autonomy of the brain in the 21st century, offers far more questions than it does answers. But what it accomplishes is that it offers society a literary shake. It challenges whoever reads the book not to become a shallow thinker because of technology, but to use technology to think more deeply, to acquire more knowledge which will inspire still deeper critical thinking.

The answer seems to be, not that we are doomed to become an unintellectual species, but that we need to adapt our brains to technological innovations, and make sure we are continuing to challenge ourselves to both read and  think in the 21st century. The introduction of printed literature did not doom humanity as Socrates predicted, nor need the changes in the transportation of literature put an end to deep thinking in our generation. But we must face the fact that society will intake knowledge differently in the years to come, and develop new ways to enrich the minds of today’s future through literature in its current form. That’s a message I hope every lover of literature stands behind. As for me, having read this collection, I feel better able to answer non-readers who ask me, “Why should I  read a book?” I also feel challenged as a student heading into my first semester of literature next year: I feel warned not  to rely on Google for my papers at school and I feel encouraged by the thousands of years of critical thinking that precedes my life in literature.