Blake Morrison encourages a call to arms for people to fall in love with reading again in 2012
It was an inspiring English teacher who first turned Blake Morrison onto reading (“that’s always the case isn’t it?” he admits). As a teenager, he fell in love with the moderns including Joyce, Lawrence and Eliot and so a life-long relationship with the written word began.
Morrison’s career has spanned several books, including poetry, libretti, criticism and journalism and the memoir And When Did you Last See Your Father? which was made into a film starring Colin Firth. He is also a creative writing professor at Goldsmith’s College.
Yet for a man who has made his career from words, he believes now that the UK is at a “crisis point in culture in relation to books”, citing the recent Evening Standard surveys about the country’s plummeting literacy rates. He says “we need to be reminded of the pleasures of reading but also how [books] can change your life” – and so has signed up to Vintage publishing’s call to arms, Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! A collection of 10 essays by writers including Jeanette Winterson, Tim Parks and Zadie Smith, it champions the pleasures of reading against the distractions of the modern world – a sentiment very close to WLTB’s heart.
Morrison’s piece begins with the striking image of a friend building a barrier of books around her bed as a teenager – for her, reading proved to be an escape, while for him it was a revolt against his father in particular, who didn’t see it as a “useful practical task”, he writes. “For me, reading was a rebellion,” he explains. “But that’s pretty unusual – I think most people are urged to read and their rebellion perhaps takes the form of not reading! In literary households… your parents are incredibly enthusiastic about reading and there’s always books around to pick up. But equally if you’re being force-fed or made to do things sometimes [you] can react against it.”
He is ambivalent about the concept of the “guilty pleasure” book, admitting that there is such a thing “because we know when we have some spare time we should be reading Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and the English classics or whatever and maybe you want to chill out and read a thriller”. And although he won’t be drawn on what his particular secret treats are, he adds: “I’m the only person in my household not to have read the Larsson trilogy – because I expect I’d guiltily enjoy it!”
He is passionate about poetry in the article (“Poetry is a serious business, but it isn’t solemn or funeral”), and laments the “syllabus” approach to poetry which puts off so many young readers.
But unlike others in the book, he doesn’t eulogise the smell and feel of print books and bemoan the encroach of digital reading. “I have both a Kindle and an iPad… I’m beginning to see the point of e-books and I don’t particularly feel threatened by them. It’s another way to read books… [But] I do think there are occasions when you want an object for yourself or to give to someone else”. It’s a “completely natural thing” for a generation used to texting and screens, he shrugs, while puzzling over how to give his son Kindle books for Christmas.
As for the fear of all the bells, whistles, pictures, videos and links within some enhanced e-books – not least our busy 21st-century lives- distracting us from the actual text, he is laidback on this too. “There have always been distractions… [This] might be the only call I have all day, whereas once upon a time the phone was constantly breaking in. So you can control things much better in the current arrangement of culture…
“There are publishers who are very keen on interactive things [in e-books] and I can see all sorts of opportunities while reading a book to click on this and that and go off on a tangent . . . But I think one’s mind always goes off at a tangent, reading - doesn’t it? It’s supposed to stimulate you to have ideas and thoughts as well as follow a story.”
His recent good reads have been Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child and Julian Barnes’ Man Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending, while he’s looking forward to Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur, out from Faber in January after his “wonderful” translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Part of the joy of reading is to share your recommendations with others. As he writes in Stop What You’re Doing: “Let the whole world have them.”
Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! is out now, published by Vintage.