On being a Reader with a capital R

on being a Reader

I am, and always will be, a Reader.

Being literate doesn’t qualify you to be a Reader. It’s not enough to be able to read all the words and comprehend the plot. Being a critic doesn’t qualify you either. It seems to me that most critics have completely lost whatever potential they once had to be Readers.

To be a Reader you have to suck the book into you as if it was air and you were emerging from too long a time underwater. You have to let the book possess you. Possession doesn’t stop when you close the book. The book is still with you. You come back to it compulsively: attracted by this image or that piece of language or this plot twist. Readers don’t just enjoy a book as they read a particular page. The book becomes a filter through which they will see the world for a while. They will become sensitized to particular topics or places or points of view. They will review the book, consciously or unconsciously, against what they know about the world and how they feel about themselves and their lives.

I fell in love with fiction as  child. Reading was my refuge and my source of excitement. My best friends were fictional characters. Books where objects of desire, long lusted after before they were acquired and cherished once they were mine. Libraries where my Cathedrals, “Bookland” the only bookshop in town, was my Church.

I lost myself in books that gave me an imaginary experience that burned so brightly in my mind that the day-to-day world that I was forced to live in faded into the background. I went back to past with Rosemary Sutcliffe, rooting for crippled Drem to realize his dreams in “Warrior Scarlet”  in the Bronze age and then marched with Roman Legions in “Eagle of the Ninth”. I travelled the stars with Robert Heinlein in “Farmer in the Sky” and “Citizen of the Galaxy“. These books were the metaphorical wardrobes that carried me through the thin membrane that separated me from multiple Narnias.

I went from being a child obsessed with books to a member of the Reader Tribe in my teens, when I started to look for books I could find myself in as well as lose myself in.  I read widely but I kept coming back to science fiction ( Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, James Tiptree Jnr, Ursula Le Guin) and to some forms of fantasy, (Lucy M Boston, JRR Tolkein, Anne McCaffrey, C S Lewis and Ursula Le Guin again). The SF books engaged me in the idea that the universe had rules that could not be broken but that knowledge and courage and cooperation could turn these rules to our advantage. The fantasy books helped me realise that the need for something to believe in and to belong to runs deep in most people and the fundamental choice we are faced with is whether we have the courage and the strength to stay true to the right beliefs and loyal to the right people.

I would emerge from these books filled to bursting with excitement about what the world might offer. I was bright enough not to share this information with those around me. I was already enough an anomaly without trying to engage friends or teachers in a discussion about whether there was a bridge between the nature of scientific truth and the nature of religious belief and if so, who would have the courage and the strength to cross it.

Books showed me, that although I was an anomaly locally, I was not alone in the world and suggested who I might try to become. “Lord of the Flies” with its triumph of barbarism over common-sense seemed very real to me. I knew I was a natural “Piggy” but I wanted to be a stronger version of Ralph. Ursula Le Guin’s “The Left Hand Of Darkness” reassured me that people are people first and males or females second. “Dune”, with its mantra against fear, spoke to me more deeply than the religion I’d been raised in:

“I must not fear.Fear is the mind-killer.Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.I will face my fear.I will permit it to pass over me and through me.And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.Where the fear has gone there will be nothing….only I will remain”

As an adult, books became my secret identity: the real me that hid beneath my only-for-work suit. I learnt the joy of reading aloud to me wife, of swapping books and discussing them with her, of finally being with someone who saw past the Clarke Kent glasses to the inner me.

At one point, I was lucky enough to live in London at time when Adult Education was about more than getting yet another qualification and I spent time working with others to compare D H Lawrence with Virginia Wolfe, understand the under-tow of class in E M Forster and ponder whether Edith Wharton was a better writer than Henry James and, if so, why Henry James was more famous.

In my forties I started to learn to write and my reading experience expanded. I learned to love books where the skill of the author filled me with joyful excitement. I’m not prone to joy and I rise to excitement only slowly but sometimes I looked at how a book had been written and I slapped myself on the forehead and went: “Of Course. What a great idea. I wonder if I could do that?”

Reading books where I can get excited about the content and about how the book is written switches on all the lights in my head, filling me with so much energy that I’m surprised other people can’t see me glowing.

Now I have discovered that the Internet has provided the Reader Tribe with a territory of our own: goodreads.com, booklikes.com and the many people who use blogs to share their thoughts on books, provide us all with a possible point of connection.

For the first time, Readers can connect with each other and with authors without the filter of critics and publishers and share the full experience. I think that connection has great potential and I wonder how bringing all that energy together will shape how we read and what gets written.


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