It’s all business at the moment.
I’m gearing up for a new financial year, a new planning year, a new make-the-organisation-again year at The Reader and I am working on organisational thinking things, which also require writing and reading but not of this readerly-blog-sort. Most of my early morning time is being spent on business books and organisational thinking. Some of that organisational thinking needs poetry, and a poem I often turn to at work is William Stafford’s ‘A Ritual To Read To Each Other‘.
There are many copies of the poem on the internet and I’m using the one at The Poetry Foundation.
Trying to translate everything I learn from my life in literature into my work as the Founder and Director of The Reader is a difficult task but surely, it is the task for me? If The Reader isn’t made out of reading I don’t know what is.
If The Reader’s mission is a reading revolution, what is the post-revolutionary world? A world informed by, shaped by, made new by what we can learn from reading great books. It’s easy to say ‘a world’, but so much harder to make one. In a small way, I want to make that world at The Reader.
Before the advent of The Reader (the organisation, the movement and Calderstones all started with The Reader magazine, which is twenty-one this Spring) the main thing I had to make from my engagement with literature was myself. There were ripple effects on my students, too, I believe, but those ripples were much harder to judge than the effect of literature on me, which I know from inside. Making a self is a lifetime task, as reading and tussling with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets has taught me:
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.
At some point long ago, when I still worked in a university, I read Wendell Berry’s essay, ‘The Loss of The University’ ( find it in the collection of essays Standing on Earth) and realised what was wrong with literary studies. I don’t have the book here at home (it’s in the office) so cannot check the quotation, but essentially Wendell Berry argues that literary scholars teach students to learn about works of literature rather than from them. I’d not been an ‘about’ student or teacher, but I’d never put my instinct on this into words until I saw the words Wendell Berry used. That was key moment of shocked recognition. Now I carry that formulation with me : don’t learn about it, learn from it. You get the literary, rather than the historical, experience that way.
I want to use what I have learned from forty years of reading literature to make a good organisation that does good work, and works well.
But the difficulties of organisation-making are immense. Since I’ve been working on The Reader I have developed a massive respect for anyone who gets any kind of business /organisation/ project off the ground. A garden centre, a new building, a plane ticket, the Olympics. Because everything is so complicated, compromises must always be made – plastic bottles or glass bottles? – and short-cuts must be taken, but which short-cut is a readerly organisation willing to take? You’ve deadlines to meet: will you cut out the day’s reading or your one-to-one with a sadly troubled colleague or will you miss the bid deadline and potential income? (Clue: cut the one that will still be do-able tomorrow).
Let’s take a straightforwardly contentious issue: what’s fair in terms of pay? This is a massive unsolvable problem and for years I’ve been tempted towards a simple solution: pay everyone the same! But that’s not fair, because some people put in more than others, some shoulder more responsiblility, some are highly valued in the outside-world-markets of skills. And, yes, the organisation must exist within the terms of the outside world, even as things I have learned in my life in literature tell me to build a new and better world. So it’s always a case of compromise and adjust, work out what’s the nearest thing to fair that fits the situation and meets legislation. Or you can just copy what most people/other organisations do.
This is what William Stafford might mean when he talks about ‘a pattern that others made’:
If you don’t know the kind of person I amand I don’t know the kind of person you area pattern that others made may prevail in theworldand following the wrong god home we may missour star.
These patterns that others made – from payscales to maternity leave entitlements to meeting agendas to dresscode – are everywhere and are the norm in the world. They may cause massive loss of potential and misdirection. For William Stafford this all begins at a personal, individual level. Do we know each other? Do you know the kind of person I am?
I wonder about ‘kind’ here: does it mean ‘type’, or almost ‘species’ ?
If you don’t know the kind of person I amand I don’t know the kind of person you are
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,a shrug that lets the fragile sequence breaksending with shouts the horrible errors ofchildhoodstorming out to play through the broken dike.
sending with shouts the horrible errors ofchildhoodstorming out to play through the broken dike.
I believe that everything that happens comes about because of cause-effect relationships that repeat and evolve over time. At the big bang, all the laws and forces of the universe were created and propelled forward, interacting with each other over time like a complex series of machines that work together: the strucuture of the galaxies, the make-up of Earth’s geography and ecosystems, our economies and markets, and each one of us. Individually we are machines made up of different machines – our circulatory systems, our nervous systems, and so on – that produce our thoughts, our dreams, our emotions, and every other aspect of our distinct personalities. All these machine are evolving together to produce the reality we encounter every day.