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.