What’s great? And who says? Making choices about books.

damson tree.JPG
Great! Damsons coming along nicely in a Perast garden, 24 July

Been reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan  novels, My Brilliant Friend and  The Story of A New Name, and enjoying them. And I’ve been asking myself : would I take them to a Shared Reading group?

People often – always – ask the question, how do you choose what you read?

The answer is: the Reader Leader chooses. The Reader Leader has that responsibility, though they sometimes involves group members in the choosing. So, if choosing a novel, a group leader might bring along a bagful of novels and  a group spend a session reading bits of them, seeing what people fancy. But the Reader Leader will have chosen the books in the bag. Many groups only read short stories and poems – the Reader Leader chooses them.

Sometimes, some Reader Leaders will choose to let group members decide. I think that’s a mistake – and undemocratic –  because often the  group members have no basis on which to make a choice, and the  person with the most determined voice wins the toss. ‘I read a really great book once, called The Da Vinci Code,’ said a  guy in a hostel. ‘We should read that! ‘

It’s the Reader Leaders job to be tactful – be kind – but to make sure that a book s/he thinks is a good book, a book of high quality is brought to the table – so you have also to be bold. For me, as a Reader Leader, a great book could never be The Da Vinci Code. And yes, I have read it. It is one of the few books I’ve ever finished and – literally – put in the bin.  So I have to stand by that, saying, tactfully, but maybe equally forcefully, ‘No! what about ….’ and that is my responsibility.

Because I must take responsibility for the hours and hours  of reading and talking that lie ahead. We can’t go on a long pointless journey.

So while I’m  thinking about the  Elena Ferrante novels, I’m also thinking, I may only have one chance at a novel with  four of these people in this high-turnover group. Is this the right novel for that one chance? Maybe I’d be better reading George Saunders’  short stories, Pastoralia? Anna Karenina? Jane Eyre? Hester? The Golden Notebook? As far as I am able I want to be sure the book we start is going to yield good stuff, and stuff that is good for this particular group of people. But what is ‘good stuff’?  What is ‘good’?

It’s the Reader Leader’s responsibility to decide on that, knowing the  reading matter, knowing, however slightly, the people in the group.

Is it possible that someone could lead a nine month Shared Reading of The Da Vinci Code?  I’m really afraid it is possible – because  we have to trust the Reader Leader to  think about what will work for their group: we don’t have laws, in Shared Reading, we can’t stop people. We trust that if it doesn’t work, people will vote with their feet, or say something. And  we try, through Read to Lead and through Masterclasses and the Reader blog, and the Spark Series and  the Membership website and The Reader magazine and this blog of mine to show  what ‘good’ might look like in lots of different guises.

To return to  the Neapolitan novels…These are compelling stories and they’ve been making me think a lot about my past, growing up the in the pub in Parliament Place where my mum was the landlady, and our street was  a place of  strange transition between nineteenth century slum and the modern world. I went to Blackburne House High School in a green blazer and a hat, and people in the pub said ‘She goes to college!’ Men went ‘down the pool’ to get a ship, some of the women  had beehive hairdos and sometimes black eyes, two teenage girls in across the road from us were prostitutes, a powerful and unapologetic racism played out amongst us, and I was taken to the pictures by a boy who paid  for everything in sixpences: when we got back the police were waiting. He’d  robbed the phone box on the corner to take me out.

I’m enjoying thinking about all that as I read and  learning about the world and people Ferrante presents me with. There’s a lot in these novels about  what being a woman  under constrained circumstances means.  You’re really brainy and you get married at sixteen because nothing else can happen. Could I imagine reading these novels then in a women’s hostel, a women’s prison? Perhaps I could. Yes, think I would do that. I’d be choosing on behalf of the  women, who  might really enjoy the story, and possibly, like me, recognise some of it.  and that’s important first off,  but I’d be choosing also because the books offer  the opportunity to open a conversation about serious choices, serious blockages, what a life is, how you make it.

For me – personally –  the important choices have been about learning about morality. Funny word, hard to use in public. Going to try.

I’d start with whatever would work to get my group together and into Shared Reading but always want to get to a point where I was sharing what seems to me the very best stuff, for example Silas Marner  ( a book that has worked well in a women’s prison, by the way) or The Winter’s Tale –  truly, from  my point of view, these are the great books. I don’t mind standing by  the word great, or my ability to use it. And such works being so great, I naturally want to share them. Just as I want to share a great Albanaian dessert I’ve eaten here in the Bay of Kotor –  I don’t have link to the Daily Mail from this site, but here’s a good recipe for Tri Leche  from Rick Stein…

It’s natural, isnt it, to want to share something fantastic? So it is  I want to encourage other people to read thses  books which h vae been great to me, and that includes my fellow Reader Leaders  who might not yet fancy a Shakespeare play, a Victorian novel.

Why do I love them so? because they put me on a spot where I can think about how to be good, how to live a good life. Not that I do,  but I do want to learn. So here I learn from George Eliot and Godfrey Cass about  how hard bravery is, and what being weak feels like. He waits outside Silas ‘ cottage while the doctor pronounces Molly dead or alive:

He walked up and down, unconscious that he was plunging ankle-deep in snow, unconscious of everything but trembling suspense about what was going on in the cottage, and the effect of each alternative on his future lot. No, not quite unconscious of everything else. Deeper down, and half-smothered by passionate desire and dread, there was the sense that he ought not to be waiting on these alternatives; that he ought to accept the consequences of his deeds, own the miserable wife, and fulfil the claims of the helpless child. But he had not moral courage enough to contemplate that active renunciation of Nancy as possible for him: he had only conscience and heart enough to make him for ever uneasy under the weakness that forbade the renunciation. And at this moment his mind leaped away from all restraint toward the sudden prospect of deliverance from his long bondage.

I’ve run out of time today, but tomorrow I want to read this alongside some of the Emerson.

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