Paradise Lost 12: Can Thinking Make It So?

 

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Nasturtiums in the rain

First, an apology to regular readers for my radio silence last week and the somewhat intermittent signal prior to that.

I’ve been very busy with things at The Reader and often times when I wake up I have got some pressing matter leftover from the day before and simply have to do the practical thing and deal with whatever it is. I hope that period of huge busy-ness is going to slow down in the weeks ahead. But if I go offline don’t think it means I’m  having an extra hour in bed (though  if I can, I will) just think of me reading or writing documents, ploughing through email trails or travelling on those early trains.

It makes  me think about the difference between the life of contemplation and the life of action, an old chestnut to many readers, I’m sure, but one I’ve not studied, though I’ve had powerful experience of it. It’s  twenty  years since I founded The Reader, with my colleague Sarah Coley, when we produced the first issue of The Reader magazine in Spring 1997. The Reader has since become one of the defining acts of my life, and often has demanded action at the expense of contemplation. I’m lucky in that I had an equally  long period of  contemplative life  before The Reader, from 1980, when I enrolled as an undergraduate in the School of English at Liverpool Univeristy.  All I did, apart from personal life, and the practice of  writing, cookery, sewing and DIY, for twenty odd years  in the centre of my human span, was read and think about and sometimes teach literature.

That stood me in good stead, charging my innner battery for the long years of Reader action ahead.  But when weeks become the kind of busy-no-stop weeks I’m in at the moment, I miss the rhythm of my life contemplative and my Daily Reading Practice. So I was glad this last week to enjoy two Reader Thinkdays with colleagues – the first at Calderstones, where for the first time we brought everyone working on site to share some reading and to do some thinking about organisational development and ethos. How can we use our cafe coffee grounds for compost and how get  literature into the Ice Cream Parlour? How make a human connection between the kitchen and quality team?

Later in the week I traveled to a Polish Community Centre in Birmingham where our  national and far-flung criminal justice team  were meeting for their own Thinkday – same feeling of  excitement and pleasure at spending contemplative time with colleagues. We read Chaucer’s poem, Truth and spent a lot of time on the pressures of  working in high secure environments.  We asked ourselves, what is the value, for our group members,  of an hour of calm group attention – a moment of contemplation –  in a week of danger, self-harm, despair?

Those hours with colleagues felt like a sort of contemplation, and a valuable use of  my time, though they didn’t translate into anything visible here.

Daily Reading Practice: Sunday, Paradise Lost by John Milton

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, I’d suggest a read  through from the beginning first. You’ll find a good online edition here.  But if there’s no time for that, well, just start here and now.

Last week,  I’d got to about line 250, Book 1. Satan, fallen from Heaven after challenging god in battle, is utterly ruined, chained to a burning lake in deepest hell. He is speaking to himself and  looking about, he has risen from the lake and found some  burning land on which to find a footing. And now he is contemplating his lot:

                           and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss [ 265 ]
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

Last week I was thinking about the way a mind may change. Satan feels sorrow, perhaps sometimes something approaching remorse but it is a flickering sensation, always overcome by his determined will to remain the same. Does this mean that   he is unchangeable, a given  like gold or air or fire, simply what it is, immutable? Can it be true that  this  how minds, beings, human beings, are?

Certainly there are some givens that do not seem to change – those who have brought up babies will have seen some element of what we call  ‘personality’  or perhaps character, always present.  Is this Satan’s case? He’s essentially an assertive fighter? He boasts that he is Hell’s ‘possessor’, as if  simply arriving there makes him its boss. And what is it about him that makes him that boss? His mind, which is his own, and which gives  him a  power to own anything, anywhere. He is

                                            One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater?

Like the noun ‘possessor’, the verb ‘brings’ is powerful, and gives Satan agency. This is  in one sense false – he has no agency about being sent to Hell,  for nine days and nights he fell, and was unable to stop himself , and is now unable to go back to Heaven (though his thoughts often turn longingly in that direction). Yet there is a powerful will in his mind – is that the same as agency? What you can do, think, in your own mind is one thing. How you can affect reality – the outside world – is another. Satan brings to Hell ‘a mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time’.

Powerful equipment, but perhaps broken  – though still dangerous – equipment? Could such a mind hold you up (I  imagine Nelson Mandela in the Robbin Island Prison) and hold purpose and  self-control together in terrible situations? Yes. Could it be a broken mind asserting itself – I imagine an incarcerated murderer, never repentant, never sorry.  Yes.

Now Satan gives us two of the poem’s most famous lines:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]

This is a power that minds – any minds, good or bad, working well or broken – may have, just as lungs have the power to take in – more or less – oxygen.  Satan asserts the greater power of his mind over external reality.  Each reader must surely recognise some truth in this – how we think  about things does change them. But in what sense can the extremity of Hell be made Heav’n? If that was true why not stayed chained on the burning lake? And the next line seems in some way to undercut the sense of power Satan is desperate to hold on to;

What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom Thunder hath made greater?

I don’t know why I have a feeling that  ‘ if I be still the same’ is sad:  perhaps implies being stuck with yourself, the  rigidity of not being able to change. It is no matter where he is –  he is himself.  For a fraction of a second this does not feel good.  Then Satan reasserts himself – he’s only ‘less than he/Whom thunder hath made greater’.

That ‘less’ must chafe and gives rise to the thought that  God is only greater because he makes more noise.

Can you make a Heaven of Hell by thinking? I think so. This a power humans have, one we both do and often don’t recognise. There’s also external reality in which we stub our toes on reality whenever we try not to believe in it. And yet the world changes because people think thoughts.

Time to stop for  today because there is action to be taken in the garden – the ivy must come down, I think. It’s a hellish job.

But if I simply said ‘There! I’ve thought: the ivy has come down and been carted to the dump…heaven!’ I don’t think the garden would look any different. So in what sense is the mind it’s own place, making a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n?

More next week.

Good in the garden. Again.

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Ah, the poor blog. Whenever things get busy then down, down, down the to-do list it falls.

Like the dear old garden, couch-grassed-over, cursorily glanced-at in the half-light as I leave the house, ignored as I arrive home at night: I half-forget it  yet feel it on my mind. But, in another sense, my (lack of) commitment to writing is not like  my love-it-when-I’m-out-there relation to the garden, because writing is a struggle and hard to feel pleasure in, whereas gardening, once started, is easy and makes me feel great. But oh, in both cases, the starting is hard.

I did try. Over Christmas I wrote about my book of the year but, at the risk of sounding like a second-year undergraduate, I lost my work. Yes, closed down without saving, or perhaps actively,  in a fit of exasperated distraction, chose not to save. And so hours of thinking and trying to make sentences about Joshua Ferris’ painful and deeply moving novel, The Unnamed,  went into the pale and placeless ether, and much as I love the book, I haven’t had the grit – or is it the time? or is it the energy? –  to go back and rewrite the post. Why? 4 major funding bids and The Reader budget to sort out in January and February. Oh yes, Jane, and why else? Why? I am spending at least an hour a day watching Seinfeld,  to which I became addicted over Christmas. It’s Kramer. And I’ve been making, and eating, marmalade. The making takes several hours per batch, the eating about the same.

Could I use that ‘at least an hour’ of Kramer, those several hours of marmalade, to write, to re-write,  about The Unnamed, which is without doubt, one of the best novels I’ve ever read and certainly the best contemporary novel I’ve read since Marilynne Robinson’s Home? I’ve been reading Grit by Angela Duckworth and have to confess in the light of the thoughts it’s made me have, that I might have rewritten my piece about The Unnamed. But I didn’t, because I let myself be distracted by Kramer and marmalade. I  am an obsessive, but not all the time, not about everything: I’m a monomaniac and a magpie. For  true grit, the kind of grit that makes you the best in your field, you need the single mind. Tim, the hero of the The Unnamed has that kind of habitual dedication to his obsession, walking, and it costs him everything.

I cannot garden in the dark so that lets me off the hook, Kramer-wise. As for weekends, I cannot garden in January – it’s just too monochrome out  there and the many things I have left undone – the broken shed door, the weed-rank pots – stand out like painful truths I don’t want to hear. But yesterday was Spring-like. I stopped off between car and door for the briefest of glances at the red single Camellia… one of the first plants I ever bought, which I planted by digging up a paving slab in the backyard of our first house. When we  moved I dug it out and brought it with me in a pot. It’s maybe twenty-five years old now, perhaps thirty. Lovely  thing, and unusual in that it’s stamens are not golden but red, same colour as the rest of the flower. It is always flowering by Valentines Day, but this year started on the  2nd February.


So having stopped to look, I looked elsewhere and saw lots of good in the garden – primrose, crocus, lovely red leaf buds on a rose, the unfurling Euphorbia.


Taking my Mum to the Garden Centre yesterday afternoon I bought some pale pink primulas to go in the big pot – they look brave. Not counting the Garden Centre time, I did an hours work but felt as good as if I’d had an invigorating afternoon at Enniscrone Seaweed Baths. 

As for writing, I need more grit.

Onwards, Readers!

 

I woke up this morning at 5.24am and immediately got up to log on and see what had happened with the #Big Give since I went to bed. Nearly £500, some of it in very small denominations, that’s what!

It is absolutely amazing to see donations coming in from NYC public library, Bootle New Strand, Central London, Mossley Hill, Cornwall, Norris Green, Kensington London and Kensington Liverpool, Hampshire, Wigston, Salford, Strabane, Prenton and sunny California, as well as dear old Strathey Lighthouse, to name but a few of the locations people are donating from…

Our friends, colleagues, ex-colleagues, Trustees, ex-Trustees, relations, partners, group members and supporters are donating five pounds’ in their scores, as well as £10, £20, £30,£40, £50, £100, £300, £420, £500 and £1000’s…

It is one of best jobs I’ve ever had at The Reader, logging on and reading through the list of donors – and it is not just the money, though at time of writing we’ve secured a total of  £25,876.25  which is TERRIFIC.

But it is not the money that makes it uplifting and exciting … It never is the money, is it?

(Though the day I took a phone call to say we’d got £2.1m from HLF for Calderstones Mansion, it did feel as if money could make you joyful. I was in a hand-car-wash in Everton, and still holding the phone, shouted out to the man wielding the spray gun, ‘I’ve got £2.1 million!!’ and he shouted back ‘Allah be praised!’ and carried on washing my car.)

But that rare moment aside, it is not usually the money.

No, it is the reach of the people who want to support our reading revolution that I am finding really moving. The smallest sums – many of them coming from group members or others whose lives have been touched by shared reading – feel profound. It reminds me of the flowers lining the route of Charles Dickens funeral… of course it was expected that Westminster Abbey would be filled with expensive lilies and it was, but London was full of bunches of wildflowers laid at the wayside, gathered by the poor who knew Dickens wrote their lives.

As we enter the  3rd day of the #BigGive and  support naturally slows down, may I ask you to lend a hand  by talking to people, posting on Facebook, tweeting or emailing the direct link to the donate page to colleagues, friends and relations?

http://bit.ly/2gj3spa

and boldly, boldly but kindly, I ask you to do as I have done and to ask your friends and relations, your contacts and colleagues to give what they can to help us  continue to train volunteers to read with older people, like Rose.

Rose, 77 and living in a Home for last 3 years says of her shared reading group:

It puts something in your mind. It doesn’t always come straight away but the mind starts thinking. This is the only time we talk, you see. The rest of it is always in there [points to head] and we’re not happy. Everything that’s been happening in the group has been very true. Real. And this stuff that’s written down makes you feel different. It makes you feel lucky to be here. Because whatever’s in these stories is true – a lot of them are very truthful – they say a lot, they mean something.

 

Onwards, readers!

 

 

If a library houses books, what kind of building makes a home for readers?

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Since visiting Thoronet Abbeye, a ruined Cistercian Monastery in France, I have become mildly obsessed with the idea of a building providing form for, holding, a way of life.

Of course we all do this all the time in the décor of our own homes, which, however much or little we think about them, reflect who and what we are and how we live. My study is a mess because I hardly use it, simply rushing in and out, dumping things and scrabbling for stuff I can’t find. Before the advent of The Reader Organisation, when I used it all the time for writing, it was better (usually).

Thoronet, built in the 12th or 13th century, creates spirit from stone or stone from spirit (wouldn’t Russell Hoban have loved that? Read his short story, Shwartz). The whole building is a musical instrument, a sort of acoustic amplifier creating a tremendous long echo, which the monks used as a discipline, developing within it a plainsong which was slow, harmonious, layered. An evening concert there, hearing and feeling the building at work was a mightily powerful experience.

As it says, quite rightly, on Wikipedia;

 The abbey is fundamentally connected to its site, and is an exceptional example of spirituality and philosophy transformed into architecture. It is distinguished, like other Cistercian abbeys, by its purity, harmony, and lack of decoration or ornament.

After the concert we went back by day to walk around the site and see the building in its physical setting. I was struck by how far from the world it feels even now, and how many more times further away from anywhere it must have been in the 12th century. People chose to come to this remote place, and to hack rock from the ground in order to build this instrument-building so that they might feel and sing and  live in a certain way. The community they built here is an attempt to change, indeed to re-create the human world from scratch, in accordance with a set of beliefs. And I wondered, is everything we make like that?

So, back home, thinking about buildings, I’m asking myself whether our public and institutional buildings reflect us in the same way? I look at  McKinsey’s London offices  and yes, that is McKinsey. Same for the British Gas Boardroom, where SBT invited The Reader Organisation’s Managing Director, Chris Catterall, and myself to pitch for investment. I look at NESTA’s home and I think to myself – yes, that’s more or less NESTA. I look at Springwood Heath Primary School  and again, that is pretty much Springwood. Then I look at some other learning or idea or health institutions. I don’t want to name them. You will find them everywhere. But, oh dear.

Is this poverty of spirit in our communal buildings about lack of money? I am remembering in my churlish way the utter quality of the toilet doors in Portcullis House, Westminster. Centuries of forests and thousands of public pounds went into them. Why do MPs and their admin teams deserve such superior shutters when patients in an inpatient mental health unit at Anyborough Hospital will have warping and wobbly-locked mdf closures? The toilet doors have in both cases been built and installed by belief as much as budget.

Can you make something good out of not much, if you believe in what you are doing? If what you are doing is not ‘getting cheapest possible doors’ but ‘building a decently secured toilet’. Isn’t it about ethos as much as economy?

As someone who has created patchwork quilts from scraps for the past 25 years, who has cooked a pan of Scouse out of what was in the kitchen that night and fed it to (my hero) Marilynne Robinson, who has furnished her homes from junk shops and auctions and Oxfam, of course I’d say yes. You do it on a wing and a prayer, or by love, or  in time and by being  creative. You do it above all by believing you can do it and that it matters how you do it.

 

Marilynne Robinson touching a beech tree in Sefton Park the day I cooked Scouse for her.
Marilynne Robinson touching a beech tree in Sefton Park the day I cooked Scouse for her.

 

We are going to make a very lovely thing  at Calderstones Mansion and a lot of it is going to be made out of belief. And if we were not The Reader Organisation, but any group of socially-minded enterprising people who had the opportunity  re-making this place, would it still be a good idea to put reading at the heart of that project?

We will be making a bistro and a shop, and a gallery, perhaps a dog walking service, a dance studio, certainly bedrooms for our residential courses and Reading Weekends, and we’ll be creating a venue on the Garden Stage, there will be a library and a second-hand bookshop, we’ll do weddings and we’ve already done a Christening and a Community lunch… and what, you might say, what does reading have to do with any of that?

The enterprises we are going to make here are going to ensure the building is economically viable. Our first responsibility is to keep the roof on and the decay at bay. But if a reading billionaire* gave us thousands of millions of pounds, we’d still want to set up the enterprises because of the non-cash value they are going to create by providing interesting and useful volunteering and jobs. And then we’d want those volunteers and staff members to read together, because the biggest thing we want to make at Calderstones is a community, a community that holds all kinds of people and passions together. And what holds a people together ? Sharing stories.

Until very recently, throughout human history, groups of people have held themselves together through a book – the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran. These religious books held and still hold bodies of stories and poetry and thought which define a people. Many types of human community have grown from these texts, from the Sufi circle to the parish church to the Cistercian monastery to the Blue Mosque.

We are a plural organization – we have not one book but many. At The Reader Organisation all staff members run or attend a weekly shared reading group. We do this so that we never lose sight of the basis of our organizational existence: reading together. Recently  I was at Calderstones Mansion House with the Friday morning group (part of a research project being conducted by colleagues at University of Liverpool, funded through the AHRC). We were reading the extract from Jane Eyre in my old friend Angie Macmillan’s anthology A Little Aloud.  We spent two hours reading and talking about half a dozen pages. I completely forgot about my  pressing and complicated work as Director of this organisation – it was like living in another medium, another universe, for two hours, free of gravity and diving deep into language, meditating on the ranges and possibilities of meanings with my reading companions, drawing on our own life-forged  understandings.

That is an intimate experience to share with a group of people.  It’s about expressing and hammering out personal belief, in concert with others. This is why we believe at The Reader that shared reading is community glue. Slow book talk, deep language talk, over long time, let us know each other.

What we want to make at Calderstones is a model of a reading community, where whatever else is going on, people will be connected by a huge body of reading experiences. Let the building have many bookshelves, reading corners, kindle power sockets. Let it be a Thoronet for readers.

Calderstones Mansion House, where we will build the International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing
Calderstones Mansion House, where we will build the International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing

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*Dear Reading Billionaire, even so we’d still like some money

Lifesavers

In June 1983, at the age of 27, I sat in the garden of the Albert pub in Lark Lane with Brian Nellist, who had been my third year tutor at University and told him, ‘I want to teach adults to read.’

My degree, First Class honours, top of my year, was the first success I had had in the world. I was a not-very-mature mature student about to start her adult life.

The day the results came out my ex-partner committed suicide.  I had ended our relationship – which involved a lot of drugs and drink – so as to be able to concentrate on my degree. I was left with a terrible sense that I had to make my life count for something – that the thing I had chosen, ‘literature’, had to pay.

Within 3 years my mother would die of alcoholism. These two deaths were utterly significant in the much later development of The Reader Organisation. They seemed to stack up an equation – what life is, and how you value it, what matters, what things cost.

In the pub garden that sunny day, Brian persuaded me that instead of becoming an adult literacy tutor, I should do a Ph.D. I took his advice and the three years I spent writing my thesis, Visionary Realism: from George Eliot to Doris Lessing laid down the foundations of my adult life. I became a university teacher of literature. My desire to ‘teach adults to read’ stayed stubbornly put, however and I taught Adult Continuing Education for the next 20 years.

I had no ambitions and absolutely no sense that I could affect the world in any way, nor would I want to. I thought the world wasn’t very good, and I didn’t respect it very much.

As I look at memories of what I felt at that time, it seemed that the most important thing was to make a small good world around myself, immediately – in my house, with my family, in classes I taught.

That was the world I could affect. I had to make my own life pay – I felt – for those two lives which, if I had if not actively taken, I had not been able to save. This has always been at the back of my sense of my own adult life and behind my teaching or sharing of literature. Can it help?

For a long time, I wanted to be a writer. Finishing my Ph.D.  had taught me that I could complete things, so for many years each day I got up at 5.00am and wrote. I wrote six novels during this period, none of them publishable, but all important to me: I was remaking the world in images I chose. I wrote stories of people whose lives had been smashed up, whose worlds were broken. And  then I taught literature, part-time, to adults. Being an unpublished novelist was a sad state (though I didn’t care a jot for a long time:  I just had to write), but it served as a sort of preparation for the hard slog that would become The Reader Organisation: I was learning to believe in and to build structures. It was a fifteen-year apprenticeship in not giving up.

During this long and intensely private period of my life a traumatic event took place.  I felt the world, the cosmos, was broken. Literature, in this period, assisted me – as breathing apparatus assists in a major fire. I can remember reading Psalm 91 when I was so frightened that, night after night, I was scared to go to sleep:

          He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.

Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler,

and from the noisome pestilence.

He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust:

his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;

nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness;

nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

I did not, do not, ‘believe in god’ in any sense that a person with a formed  religious faith would recognise. Yet I needed those words  – ‘fortress ‘ ‘deliver thee’  ‘snare of the fowler’. The words met me in my place of terror and offered –what? Recognition? Language?

They are ancient words, words to  which people, for more than two thousand years, have turned in their terrors.  Unable to sleep, I took comfort from those countless human beings, and the words to which they had turned. The verses seemed to offer structure, shape, and yes, refuge. I liked reading them aloud. They gave me, in the deepest sense, comfort.  And it was a surprise – I had no idea those poems, The Psalms, were still alive.

Many other books also helped me – the entire works of George Eliot (including the nine volumes of her Letters). Shakespeare. The Assistant by Bernard Malamud. Shikasta and The Sirian Experiments by Doris Lessing.  The works of Russell Hoban. Poetry, starting with Chaucer and going as far as my dear old friend Les Murray’s An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow, and probably further. George Herbert. Paradise Lost. The Prelude and everything else by Wordsworth.  These books gave me back my inner and outer experiences in words and sentences, feelings and thoughts, images, worlds, cosmologies, voices, languages.  They gave me meanings which matched what I already – wordlessly – knew.

The Reader Organisation has grown out of and from the wonderful compost of sadnesses, ruins, breakages, losses and terrors of my own real life and the lives of others I have known.

When I started my mission (‘great books out of the university and into the hands of people who need them’) in 2002, it was with the intent of passing on this strong, life-saving stuff to others.  Having felt the true weight of the trouble many humans, most humans, have to live through, the seriousness of needing some strong help really comes home.  Of course there is lightweight reading, and some people are lucky enough to live on the surface most of the time. Let them continue to bob along happily, reading for pleasure.  But many of us are shipwrecked, drowning. We are reading, like the child Davy in David Copperfield, ‘as if for life’. Is that reading for  pleasure? Is it bibliotherapy? These are not the right words but no matter, so long as they bring us what we need.  We need lifesavers, the great books.

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This blog is based on a talk I gave to colleagues at  The Reader Organisation’s ThinkDay,  July 2013

2013-07-22 16.00.21We combined ThinkDay with Sportsday, as we have a garden at Calderstones Mansion. Picture shows Team A lining up for their innings in a very competitive game of rounders.

Cheap Beans: Food for Thought

Chris Catterall, TRO's managing director, preparing a Reader Lunch, in the Olden Days
Chris Catterall, TRO’s managing director, preparing a Reader Lunch, in the Olden Days

We’ve been recruiting a Hospitality Manager for The Reader Organisation this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about the food/reading analogy. Everyone we interviewed rightly talked about quality being the key to whatever we eventually offer at Calderstones Mansion and elsewhere, and one person spoke about the need to offer something for everyone. We often say of The Reader’s shared reading groups that one size really does fit all: we’ve got a model that works across the human board. Can we do that with the events and food, the venue and shop we’re going to develop at Calderstones Mansion? Candidates we interviewed were also thinking about the people who might come to connect with us at Calderstones, and what they are used to eating and visiting right now.

‘How do you chose what to read in your shared reading groups?’ is the question I am asked most often.

There is very often an implicit anxiety there: are you imposing your cultural values on readers? Are you making people read great literature when really they’d prefer something else?

A shared reading group is like a pop-up restaurant: you may chose from the menu or there may be (often at the beginning of a group) no choice, just one straight offer, one dish. I often take one short story with me to start a new group, just as I did with the very first Get Into Reading group. No choice. But an established group may devise all kinds of ways of  deciding what to read – perhaps raffling the  names of Shakespeare plays….But yes… the menu has always been devised by someone with some particular quality-based thinking behind the choices.

Any foodie will tell you that great food is to do with the quality: the freshness of the ingredients and the skill of the cook. But what individuals like is a different matter because that’s to do with taste, and taste is often to do with habit, with what we’ve learned, with education.

You can produce your slow-cooked organic bacon, fresh herb and molasses home-baked beans, but I may prefer the cheap, mass-produced, low quality ValueBrand I am used to. To me, they are great. I like the taste sensations produced by the saccharin and nitrates. Getting me to try your fancy beans is a matter not of legislation but of tempting me to change my habits, a personal project. (Although if the nitrates are proven to be carcinogenic, there may be legislation in the long run…) So, is leaving me with my ValueBrand beans acceptance of cultural diversity or educational neglect? Does quality matter, or is it merely a question of taste?

My early reading life included acres of probably these days unpalatable Sci-Fi and everything ever written by Agatha Christie. Or Enid Blyton, to take a perhaps more contentious writer. I loved that stuff and no one should have stopped me reading it – even if only because I was enjoying my own imagination, the power of plot, and developing my reading habit. But why did I choose them? Partly because, as people say of mountains, they were there. They were there in the school library and at home. Along with Denis Wheatley and Jean Plaidy and those Dick Frances thrillers about horse racing. I read them all. And the among the unpalatable Sci-Fi were some good books -and the development of a taste which eventually led me to Last and First Men, Shikasta and works like Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy (a long literary story but it was all one journey). But if the little bookcase in our sitting room had contained Dickens as well as Denis Wheatley – would I have read them?

As I write, I am suddenly remembering that an old lady my grandmother cleaned for gave me two beautifully bound, gold-tooled Dickens volumes and I loved them – they looked gorgeous. Our Mutual Friend and, I think, David Copperfield. I tried to read Our Mutual Friend but I couldn’t. It was too hard. I’d have been maybe ten, maybe twelve. I don’t think I ever tried David Copperfield. I wonder now what would have happened if someone had read them to me?

I kept those books for years – may even still have one of them – and I don’t think I ever read them in those particular edtiions (though I read most of Dickens later, as a university student or teacher). Yet I was disposed to love them. I couldn’t digest them; I could barely take a mouthful. I needed the enthusiasm of some lover of Dickens, some believer, to tempt me into trying them. Just as I now tempt people who think they really don’t like Sci-Fi to try, let’s say, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (consider pulp fiction, the literary equivalent of junk food, for so long and in some quarters, still).  Or to try Pastoralia by the magnificent George Saunders. A strange, strong taste, but worth cultivating.

Pastoralia

Meg, Mog and Middlemarch

Photo on 13-09-2013 at 06.14

The Institute of Education’s recent report into Reading for Pleasure  indicates that reading for pleasure between the ages 10-16 affects cognitive power, giving readers better results even in non-language based subjects such as maths. The study allows for socio-economic influences, and seems to point to reading for pleasure as a greater indicator of educational success that whether or not your parents went to university. It looks as if it comes down, causally, down to increased vocabulary. Or is that a outcome of something else?

I was delighted to receive a copy of the draft report from Dr Alice Sullivan, and I’m looking forward to giving it my full attention over the coming weekend. My initial scanning glance set a couple of thoughts off . First, is it about vocabulary – greater power to communicate – or is that a sign of some other, deeper, structural  development? Need to read the paper properly to see what  the researchers are saying. and  secondly,  do we have to call it reading for pleasure? I have reluctantly accepted this misnomer for  years, simply because there seems no other word or phrase for it. But ‘pleasure’ is not good enough. I read pleasure as ‘trip to Alton Towers’ (though have to admit, I’ve never been). But reading is more like ‘expedition to Kilimanjaro’. Would you call that order of experience ‘pleasure’? Pleasure may be in it, but there is also trial, testing, pain, failure, exhilaration, defeat, new start, amazing sights, bleakness, terror, joy etc. Alton Towers is  a cheap simulacrum. So what is the  word for what we do when we read  hard stuff ? And why, uncompelled, would anyone read the hard stuff?

For more than twenty-five years, while I was studying and teaching literature, my job was to read, to think about what I had read, and to talk to people about that. It’s a terrible thing to admit, but I struggled to imagine why readers found it difficult to get into reading complex books, and sometimes thought it a failure of will: they just didn’t really want to. But here I am, wanting to reread George Eliot for the first time in seven or eight years, and finding it difficult to concentrate: hard paragraphs in Middlemarch shout less than the need to sort new staff contracts. I am going to have to devise some regular daily plan for attentive reading, because these days, like most other adults, I haven’t got the concentration at the end of the day.

You might say, why bother? Isn’t the active life as important as the contemplative? Yes, and having founded The Reader Organisation – a great experiment involving people and books – I am choosing the active during this part of my life, and enjoying it, too. All the same I am beginning to feel the need for some element of the contemplative life. It might come from meditation, or study, or prayer or perhaps even as the by-product of a very long walk, but contemplation’s serious thinking, imagining and feeling also arises in the course of reading a complex novel or epic poem. This accosting kind of thought is a natural function of being human: babies and small children are concentrating in this way most of the time – building thought-models of reality.

On the mantelshelf I have two brass cauldrons, about the size of small tangerines, gently dented by three generations of play. They have a minutely serrated rim, which you only become aware of when you pick them up. Holding one now, running my finger around that rim, I re-feel the pleasure I had in those serrations when the cauldrons sat on my grandparents’ mantelpiece. I also feel a sense of the mild fear I had of the legs of the things: sharp fat brass pencil points. Sniffing them, I remember their thin, high-metallic smell and I am back in the living room of my grandparents’ house, where we went after school for tea and stories and toast. We often had the light off, to save electricity. In the dark, the cauldrons shone in the light thrown by the coal fire.

That kind of relation to those cauldrons is what the great human scientist George Eliot is talking about in The Mill on The Floss, when Tom comes home from his boarding school for the first time, and enjoys the vivid return of things that have always been there:

The happiness of seeing the bright light in the parlour at home, as the gig passed noiselessly over the snow-covered bridge; the happiness of passing from the cold air to the warmth and the kisses and the smiles of that familiar hearth, where the pattern of the rug and the grate and the fire-irons were ‘first ideas’ that it was no more possible to criticise than the solidity and extension of matter.

This is hard writing because it requires us to actively participate, not simply to absorb. As modern readers, we generally read too fast: but here you need to read as you would in a book of scientific thinking, Freud or Darwin. You need to concentrate and slow down and come alive to it. Look at that seamless passing from a child’s reported experience, ‘seeing the bright light… the snow-covered bridge… warmth and kisses’ to the complicated thought about the nature of a child’s experience:

the pattern of the rug and the grate and the fire-irons were ‘first ideas’ that it was no more possible to criticise than the solidity and extension of matter.

If you don’t actively follow these words as you read, you will soon be lost. From the description of Tom loving being home, George Eliot brings in a hypothetical general law of human being: what surrounds us in early childhood sets a pattern which lasts into adult life. We may choose other rugs, other fire-irons when we are older, but we are built up out of the feelings that we attached to those early objects and experiences of our childhood:

There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality; we accepted and loved it as we accepted our own sense of existence and our own limbs … And there is no better reason for preferring this (particular thing) than that it stirs an early memory; that it is no novelty in my life, speaking to me merely through my present sensibilities to form and color, but the long companion of my existence, that wove itself into my joys when joys were vivid.

There is wonderful sense of what contemporary thinkers would call ‘wellbeing’ here: a sense of a unified life where feelings and objects and time are bound together in one person, through joy. I would never choose to buy these cauldrons in a shop. They do not speak to me ‘through my present sensibilities to form and color’; they are not my style. I love them partly because they are mixed with memories of my grandparents, of the fire, and the toast and their love, of things I felt when my joys ‘were vivid’. They give me that elusive thing: wellbeing.

I am now the grandmother who has these cauldrons on her mantelpiece. My grandson (two years, nine months) is in the bath playing with a plastic tea-set. This is a creative experimental process and Leo is full of earnest concentration as he tries to float the cups and fill them with water, as he watches the water pass effortlessly through a sieve but less effortlessly through a small colander. His favourite word at the moment is ‘more!’ He wants things repeated ad infinitum because he needs to see them many times in order to establish them as realities, strong possibilities, likelihoods in his mind. This is a sort of scientific enquiry.

But it is time to get out. The water is getting cold, his fingers are beginning to shrivel, and the adults want to eat supper in adult peace, after he has gone to bed. None of that matters to Leo. When I suggest ‘out’ he’s still enjoying this fabulous experiment. He cries out in frustration and distress, ‘Not yet! Not yet!’

‘Not yet’ is a language spell that allows him to hold back the reality principle for a moment and continue what he is doing – and sometimes it works. But not now: our needs are more pressing; we want to eat.

He’s furious when I lift him out, screams ‘Not yet! Not yet!’ over and over and finally subsides into body-racking sobs as his mother and I rub him down and get his pyjamas on. When we are in the bedroom, I offer a story and the sobs stop: suddenly everything is different.

We open the book. It’s one of Jan Pienkowski’s Meg and Mog stories. The witch and her cat are making a spell but something is going terribly wrong. There are explosions. ‘Where’s Mog?’ I ask him and he points to the cat. ‘Where’s the cauldron?’ Leo points to the cauldron. ‘What’s Meg putting in the cauldron?’ I ask him and he recites the list of spell ingredients. He is altogether caught up in the discovered world.

In the bath-experiment, Leo was actively manipulating objects and forces – water, gravity, plastic. While part of his intelligence was involved in creating the experiment, part was engaged in observing it and another part in thinking about it. But with the book there is nothing for him to do physically, the concentration is total: all his energy goes into the observing and thinking about what he is observing. The book it is all here: the pictures and words present a created universe with experiments going on (as in George Eliot). What we have to do – our part – is to observe, meditate, reflect. Well, my dear reader, Leo in the bath is a model of a person living a life in the world. You are busy. Things happen, you try to work them out, a lot’s happening at once, some of it incomprehensible. Only part of your mind can ever be on the experience because most of your mind is doing, making, acting. And without the thinking, meditative self it is finally just chaos: we must think.

The book is a selective, ordered model of reality. It is easier to see here: things slow down; we can concentrate on one thing at a time. This may be the key aspect of reading and the reason that the read-aloud, shared reading we have developed over the past 13 years at The Reader Organisation, (whole books read aloud slowly over time in a group) is so powerful. It allows us to be here now, to keep a concentrated mindfulness going. If I were reading Middlemarch in a Get Into Reading group with other concentrated people, I would be getting a lot more out of it than I am on my sleepy own late at night.

The next day when we are lighting the sitting room fire (coal, real fire, sticks and paper), Leo looks up and sees one of the brass cauldrons – notices it for what must be the first time.

‘Cauldron?’ he says, as if to himself.

‘Cauldron,’ he says again as if checking the brass reality with his mental image from the last night’s book. Then again, more confidently, he asserts: ‘Cauldron.’ reaching for it now. I can see he is remembering Meg and Mog. I observe his fingers touch the serrated edge. He looks at the coal and mis-guesses brilliantly ‘Coal-dron’. He’s not right but he is making his world, an active presence, made more active by the book. Making me more active, too: I do not know the etymology of ‘cauldron’. I look it up.

What Leo has done: read a book, thought about it deeply, not really understood it all (because he did not know what a cauldron was in actuality) but he has got from that experience a template, a shape, a map, a set of pointers about life. Going back into life, he is able to recognise something he learned in the book (cauldron). He has been a creative reader and he has experienced a bigger reality because of the book. This is exactly what is happening, albeit in a more complex way, to me as I read George Eliot. That section about Tom coming home in The Mill on the Floss cleared a space in me and filled it with a thought-shape which was later filled out by Leo and cauldron. Books go forwards into our experience as well as backwards: they anticipate things you might know or understand later as well as things you know now, which is why we should all read books that are too hard or too old for us sometimes.

The New Economics Foundation has formulated 5 Ways to Wellbeing. One of them is ‘Take Notice’. Books build our capacity to do that. I must make more time for reading.

 This post is a slightly extended version of an article that appeared in The Reader No.37 (Spring 2010)

 

http://www.thereader.org.uk/

http://www.neweconomics.org/projects/five-ways-well-being

http://www.skyarts.co.uk/video/video-jan-pienkowski-on-the-book-show/