Reading Literature

I thought long and hard about what might be the most appropriate title for this collection of essays – and I’m still not sure if I might need to change it as time goes by :o)

What I propose to offer is a set of comments on favourite writers and favourite texts. Some of these comments might be extended pieces, some might be short (or shorter) essays. For example, the first few options – especially on the poet Siegfried Sassoon and the novelist Jane Austen – might be viewed as potential lecture courses encouraging readers to think about how best to focus on the actual words the writers use and to consider how they might impact on the way we read the specific texts under discussion. And, perhaps, on the way we read texts in general.

So, on one level my primary concern is language itself and how we use it. Literature is, after all, just one of the ways that language is organised for whatever purpose. And while I would claim that it is a particularly important way of expanding our lives and knowledge, understanding of and insight into the complexity of what it is to be human and thus our relationships with ourselves, other people, and the wider world – well, the same could be said for texts on science or mathematics, psychology or philosophy, sociology and archaeology – and so on.

That said, one of the problems surrounding the reading of literature is probably the fact that most of us (unless we have the good fortune to be born into households where books of all kinds are valued) are introduced to it at school as some sort of ‘task’ – and possibly at a time when we are not interested or prepared or equipped to engage with it. This is further complicated by the fact that almost always we are then ‘examined’ and ‘graded’ on our responses by some ‘higher’ external authority. Even if we have spent many happy hours growing up listening to or learning to read the countless excellent books available for children the dead weight of this evaluating attitude (to borrow Jon Silkin’s resonant phrase) surely has a negative effect on many.

I sometimes wonder if that is at the root of the sadly common resistance to reading books that is displayed in such relatively trivial pursuits as television quiz shows – though it seems much more prevalent in male participants than female ones! Much fascinating research into early childhood behaviours seems to indicate very strongly that boys interact through commenting on what we might term third-party objects such as toys whereas girls of the same age interact by sharing personal information about families, interests and experiences.

Anyway – and even though this description of what I hope to do with these offerings might smack a little of ‘education’ rather than, say, ‘enjoyment’ – I am firmly convinced that the best literature is very much concerned with combining the two while maintaining the sense that, without a sense of joy in language, it’s just another way of making a living.

© 2019 Mike Liddell