Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!

A few weeks ago I got very excited about the arrival of some books about books. The one I decided to read on and off first was ‘Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!’ The idea behind the initiative of this book from Vintage is to remind people about the joy of books and to have them running out to read more. I had hoped to pop thoughts on this up on World Book Day yesterday however I was so conflicted by it I needed to mull it further.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2012, non fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’ is a collection composed of ten essays by authors (such as Blake Morrison, Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Mark Haddon etc) as well as people in the industry such as Virago founder and Man Booker judge Carmen Callil and Jane Davis, who is the founder and director of The Reader Organisation which this book is supporting, discussing the importance of reading and the joy that books can bring in their many forms.

The collection starts with Zadie Smith’s ‘Library Life’ which shows the importance of books and libraries in particular to her shaping as a writer and finding books and also as spaces for her to do her writing. It is an impassioned and political essay which looks at how the people making the decisions about libraries are probably the ones with enough income to have their own personal libraries and so may not be the best people to leave in charge of such issues. Blake Morrison, who I have never read before but now most definitely will be, follows with the superb ‘Twelve Thoughts About Reading’ which had me going ‘yes, that’s me, yes, that’s me again’.

I liked Carmen Callil’s essay ‘True Daemons’ but considering she set up Virago books I didn’t feel this was really discussed, it is mentioned but in a paragraph and actually an essay on why she had been so desperate to get the unknown/forgotten/overlooked books published and so set up her own publishing house would have been a phenomenal and far more apt inclusion, it felt a little like a missed opportunity as instead it became something of a piece on class and the books people feel they ought to read rather than ones they want to. The class thing interestingly leads me into my main issue with the book…

A book like ‘Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!’ could have one slight flaw to it and become worthy or preachy. Fortunately there was only one essay in the collection that, to me, jarred and that was Tim Parks, unfortunately it jarred and lingered. I don’t know Tim Parks, I have not read any of his books, but for me his ‘Mindful Reading’ came across as a little bit pompous and clever, in fact it read rather like a high brow person (who knows it and loves it) feeling like he was writing for low brow about how clever we readers are and therefore, not so cleverly, excluding the reader completely. I didn’t like it, and this broke the spell and made me suddenly ask the question ‘if I wasn’t a lover of books would this book make me rush out and read more?’ and I kept asking this as I read on and it left me in a real quandary. I am a book lover as it is, so naturally I would enjoy this book as would any book lover the world over, but is this going to be taken on board by the people it’s aimed at, which technically isn’t me because I am an avid reader, I was not convinced.

From this point on I doubly assessed each following essay and ones that proceeded it, well apart from Mark Haddon’s incredible essay ‘The Right Words in the Right Order’ but more on that shortly. I looked back at Carmen Callil’s essay and found myself thinking ‘I know who she is because I love books, would anyone who didn’t love literature know who she was and would her essay therefore work as well?’ As someone who isn’t a fan of poetry I thought Jane Davis’ essay on the power of it (and indeed reading aloud and why she started The Reader Organisation) was incredible and very moving. There were a couple of lines that almost went into a rather worthy and preachy mode; I put this down to simply her passion, would anyone else who happened upon this book feel the same or would they think ‘who does she think she is?’ With Michael Rosen’s ‘Memories and Expectations’ I found the book lover in me thinking ‘wow, this has made me want to run out and grab Great Expectations right now’ because of Rosen’s poignant memories of storytelling, but also thinking ‘this is a wonderful piece of writing but is it only going to appeal to readers of The Guardian, myself included, rather than the layman who doesn’t read?’ I feel bad writing that, because I enjoyed the book so much personally, but once that one essay made me question the whole collection that question wouldn’t leave.

Three essays in the second half (along with the wonder of Blake Morrison’s essay earlier on) almost erased it however. Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Dreams of Readers’ is a wonderful essay on how no matter what technology comes next nothing will ever beat the novel, he won extra brownie points from me when I found out he writes about technology, it almost doubled the power of the point he was trying to get across. Jeanette Winterson’s ‘A Bed. A Book. A Mountain.’ is a wonderful piece on where a story can take you and the thrills and experience it can bring from wherever you are. The essay that steals the show though has to be Mark Haddon’s ‘The Right Words in the Right Order’ I don’t care if you love books or loathe them, read this and you’ll be converted or simply love books even more than you thought naturally possible. It is brimming with wonderful ideas about reading and books and I loved it. I was going to quote lots from it but frankly you should buy the book for yourself and everyone you know simply for this one essay.

A rather rambling and conflicted set of thoughts on ‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’ overall. As a book lover and on a personal level this was a sublime read in many ways, but I am left with that questions of ‘am I the audience this book should be hitting’ and ‘if I was to give this book to a non-reader would they become converted’ and I am left unsure. If you read this blog I know you love books and so will, if you haven’t already, be off to get this book swiftly (and quite right too as it supports a great cause). Yet what about all those people who don’t read the broadsheets or blogs or who might not see this on a shelf in Waterstones though? It is something I can’t really answer.

Who else has read this and what did you think both as a book lover yourself and then coming from the perspective of someone who doesn’t normally read books? Am I being too critical, is the question of audience with a book like this really relevant? I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this. I am also wondering how I can get involved in The Reader Organisation too; mind you after this review they might not want me – oops. I am coming from a good place with my thoughts though I hope.


Filed under Blake Morrison, Books About Books, Jeanette Winterson, Mark Haddon, Review, Zadie Smith

16 responses to “Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!

  1. You’ve hit on my problem with this book. If you’re a non-reader or a less than enthusiastic reader, would you really sit down to read a book of essays about reading? I can’t think of anything less likely. Much more likely that a book of short fictions, excerpts or quick reads introduced by passionate readers would work. It has the ring of condescension to it as it is.

    • Thats exactly it Victoria. Its a great book, but it realistically is only going to get read by people who already love to read (interestingly I think The Library Book will be more effective as it will encourage people already reading to use their libraries more, which some readers do need convincing of). I think Quick Reads are great and I am glad those are still being made.

      I loved this book for me, well apart from Tim Parks effort, and Jeanette and Zadie do discuss how important books and libraries were from their working class backgrounds which is good, but I can’t see this getting to the people it should even though I love the initiative behind it.

      I also think it will be interesting to see who does and who doesnt comment on this post actually.

  2. tolmsted

    I haven’t read this book yet, but I’m interested in the question you bring up. I can’t imagine a book of essays on reading converting a non-reader. I suppose the equivalent would be forcing children/people to play soccer – oops! football 🙂 – and expect them to automatically become football fans. (Though, here in the U.S., that seems to be the theory on how to promote the sport in this country).

    I enjoyed your review and I copied down the title, but I’m obviously a reader. If I were to give a book to a non-reader this one (or any book on the act of reading) would not be my first choice. To be honest, it wouldn’t even be in the running. I usually look for books that tie into interests the potential reader already has. The whole concept of how to convert non-readers to the joy of reading is one I have trouble with. I can’t imagine any way to do it other than on a person-by-person basis.

    • I think if I am honest, if I wanted to make a non reader read a book I would pass them on endless free copies of my favourite book, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Which is interestingly what I will be doing in April, though 25 copies rather than a never ending supply, for World Book Night.

      I am going to look into The Reader Organisation more though and see if there is anything I could do as I like the initiative it has and what its trying to do, and as a reader I did love this book.

  3. Sarie

    Haven’t read the book yet, although it is on my shelves, but I have to say that every time I’ve seen Tim Parks on tv or read a newspaper column he’s written, he always comes across to me as a very smug, unpleasant person! Sorry!

    • I might have to go and look him up on youtube and see for myself.

      I don’t want people to think this is just a bashing of the book though, I hope I made it clear that I loved it, but I didn’t think it did what it aimed at the audience it is aimed at, actually Mark Haddon’s out of all of them would I think.

  4. We definitely agree on our favourite and least favourite essays in the collection, Simon – Haddon’s was so brilliant, but I couldn’t finish Park’s.

    As to your other question… interesting. I suppose I knew that only a book lover would really love this collection, and perhaps the title/publicity focused on the wrong aspects. But that doesn’t stop it being a brilliant collection, even if it doesn’t achieve the aim of making non-readers want to read. Then again, perhaps it helps spur on those of us who love reading to tell others!

    • I don’t know why I found Parks so bothersome, I think its just a case of tone. There was nothing in common between what he was saying and what I think. I didn’t want to argue with him like you might face to face I just wanted him to stop and shush.

      I get that book lovers will love this book, as I did and indeed you did, I think the thing is the initiative behind the book is fantastic, the title is great as are the essays on the whole, something just doesnt gel all these things.

      Maybe we are meant to spur on other readers and people who might not read, but then book lovers do that naturally don’t they.

      I am looking forward to The Library Book, though I’ve spotted the same Zadie Smith essay is in that one too.

  5. Samir

    ‘if I wasn’t a lover of books would this book make me rush out and read more?’ – great question. Probably not.

    I think you strike a chord when you ask if the audience for such a book is in question. I’d say ‘absolutely’. The fact that they choose literary essays to convey their message only reflects the books intended audience: readers. Let’s face it, only readers and academics interested in such a topic would read about reading. And even though I’ve not read the book, I’m now intrigued enough to do so, but that’s because I’m interested in such topics and I enjoy the literary essay as an art form on occasion.

    As for Tim Parks, I saw him about a year ago giving an opening lecture to a literary festival here in the Netherlands, I have to say that he did come across as stand-offish and high brow, in terms of attitude. But that was only a personal impression and I have in fact not read any of his essays or fiction. I’m not sure his writing or his content is of interest to me.

    • I just watched an interview with Tim Parks, I have never seen or heard him interviewed before, and indeed he came across like he had an edge and was a bit above his interviewer – who it should be said was trying to empathise with him. Odd. I guess the personality of the essayists comes across in their writing, in which case I would love to talk books with Mark Haddon.

      I think maybe its like Simon says above, this book is aimed at literary lovers and so maybe thats why I loved it but couldnt see it boosting people who might not read to pick up a book.

  6. Samir

    Yes, that would makes sense albeit it being odd to write essays about reading to people who read.

    Hm… I’ve not read anything by Mark Haddon. I might have a short story of his lying somewhere in one of my folders or lit mags. I’ll look for it and give it a go.

    • I can understand a book about reading for reading in terms of it being rather a solitary experience and its nice to read about reading by other readers (thats a mouthful).

      I am really looking forward to the new Mark Haddon novel ‘The Red House’ even more than I was before I read this.

  7. I’ve borrowed this book from the library, I’m really looking forward to it – particularly the Mark Haddon essay. I heard Michael Rosen reading his essay on Radio 4 and it made me wonder about reading Great Expectations to my son (aged 8).

    • If you love books Joanne then you will really enjoy this book. I would like to hear Mark Haddon read his essay actually, I know Rosen did but I would like to hear more from Mr Haddon in particular.

  8. Loved reading your thoughts on this, definitely a book I still want to read at some point though perhaps I’ll be paying a bit more attention now too as you said. I’d like to know more about the essay you disliked the most to be honest!

  9. Pingback: New book excitement « Slightly Bookist

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