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.
‘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.