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Reading is complicated. Not just the decoding, putting together, joining up all the meanings into a narrative, but the motives that bring us to reading. I once did a project for the new library in Lewes in which I spoke with 100 people about why they read and was surprised by the variety of answers.

THE CHALET MAID “I like writing that bounces around – that isn’t just about real life.”

THE COMMUTER “The book I’m reading now is so stylized it’s quite difficult to follow in places but it’s better than the telly. I have spare time now to read on the train. I like to drift into someone else’s thoughts.”

Rory Stewart gives a great description of this drifting in The Pleasure of Reading:
‘Once you have taken possession of a book, you can inspect a writer’s mind, in all its shades and dimensions. You can establish a relationship, which would be intolerable to a living individual: you can wake the writer at three in the morning, switch her off mid-sentence, insist she continues for six hours unbroken, skip, go back, repeat the same paragraph again and again, impertinently second-guessing her vocabulary, and metaphors, scrutinizing her structure and tricks.’

And who do we think we are when we’re reading? The general assumption is we identify with the protagonist but I often feel it’s more that you look through several characters’ eyes, and also, somehow, you are a part of the narrative, its landscape, the tone. The book comes alive in your head. As an adolescent I loved Robert E Howard. Gloomy, sulky heroes, grimly hacking their way through a world always tottering on invasion, destruction by demons, or treachery. Lost Gods, and melancholic heroes, in an invented past written fifty years before, and yet they chimed with something in me and it became my quest to hunt them down. In rural Yorkshire the Moors were still shadowed by Brady and Hindley, at football matches the police were taunted with their failure to capture the new monster. Long lines of warehouses lay empty, windows broken, the sense of an ending, of armies stirring.

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Stories need readers. Millions of stories migrating, drifting, in libraries, on park benches and carriage seats, in birthday wrappings, on market stalls, with the old and abandoned in charity shops, with the new and talked-about in brightly-lit shops, until they meet their reader.

At the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts the aboriginal writer Tony Birch spoke about the book that he had found himself in.

‘No book left the impression on me that Kes did. I was convinced that it had travelled the globe to find me. From the first pages, when Billy wakes in the early morning in his damp, crowded room and is teased and abused by his brother, I felt more than empathy for him. I was sure I was Billy.’

He went on to say that Billy’s world made sense to him and his friends. “Billy gets walloped. His brother wallops him, his teacher wallops him, everybody wallops him. We knew this world. “ This book from Barnsley, in northern dialect, unpublished in America until 2015, was doing the rounds of teenagers literally at the other side of the world, yet it speaks to them. It illuminates their world.

I’m always uncovering new reasons why people read. It’s a subject I find endlessly fascinating. The reasons are probably as many and as varied as human experience.

“I read to find out what’s normal. I look for a Mom and a Dad in the story, see what kinds of things they do. I never had that on the street so I look in books to find these things out.”
Paul, HMP Pentonville

Despite what educators would like to believe there is no magic list of books you should read. Be curious. You are unique and no one can predict which of the books you read will leave their mark.

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