Books on Books (2003) by Jonathan Wolstenholme/Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library
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Living life by the book: why reading isn't always good for you

Somewhere along the line, an orthodoxy hardened: cigarettes will kill you and Bon Jovi will give you a migraine, but reading – the ideal diet being Shakespeare and 19th-century novels, plus the odd modernist – will make you healthier, stronger, kinder. But is that true?

The Unexpected Professor: an Oxford Life in Books
John Carey
Faber & Faber, 353pp, £18.99

Reading and the Reader
Philip Davis
Oxford University Press, 147pp, £12.99

Why I Read: the Serious Pleasure of Books
Wendy Lesser
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 226pp, £17.99

The Road to Middlemarch: My Life With George Eliot
Rebecca Mead
Granta Books, 296pp, £16.99

There is a series of postcards by the Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte that applies the alarmist tone usually reserved for smoking to scenes of people reading. A sunbathing woman is going purple and the caption, set in black on white with a black border, says: “Reading causes ageing of the skin.” In other scenarios a man ignores the naked woman lying beside him (“Reading may reduce the blood flow and cause impotence”) and a mother pours huge quantities of salt into a meal (“Reading seriously harms you and others around you”). What makes the cartoons so flat and pointless, apart from Swarte’s winsome draftsmanship, is their apparent belief that the benevolence of reading is a stable fact, ripe for comic inversion, rather than a social attitude that we are free to dispute. It is the same ostensive irony that underpins George Orwell’s exercise in amateur accountancy, “Books v Cigarettes”.

Still, you can see where Swarte’s confusion came from. Reading has the best PR team in the business. Or perhaps it’s just that devoted readers have better access to the language of advocacy and celebration than chain-smokers or, say, power-ballad enthusiasts. Either way, somewhere along the line, an orthodoxy hardened: cigarettes will kill you and Bon Jovi will give you a migraine, but reading – the ideal diet being Shakespeare and 19th-century novels, plus the odd modernist – will make you healthier, stronger, kinder. With the foundation of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous in 1976, reading became the last thing you can never do too often. Even the much-made argument that works of literature – Northanger Abbey, Madame Bovary – insist on the dangers of literature redounds to literature’s benefit, and provides yet another reason for reading.

But a serious, non-circular opposition case has been made, if not against reading, then against the idea that the western canon is morally improving or good for the soul. Shakespeare, most canonical of all, became a magnet for 1980s iconoclasts, who disparaged him as an imperial stooge (post-colonial theory), a tool of national power (cultural materialism) and a product of the same social/ideological energies as such putatively non-literary texts as James I’s Counterblaste to Tobacco (new historicism). Conducted for the most part in postgraduate seminar rooms and the pages of academic texts (the collection Political Shakespeare being perhaps the best-known English example), the debate was finally settled in the public sphere, where the cultural warriors, keen to alter reputations and revise the agenda, were greeted with indifference or derision.

At the turn of the 21st century, with the debate dying off and the future uncertain, Harold Bloom, in How to Read and Why, and Frank Kermode, in Shakespeare’s Language, tried to reassert the old agenda by teaching lessons that had been standard in their youth but had faded amid the chatter.

The project has since split in two, with reading primers teaching us “how” to read and reading memoirs providing testimony as to “why”, both in positive rather than implicitly combative terms. There is no longer any need to write “in defence of” reading, or, if there is, the defence is against forces such as “distraction” and “technology” that are indifferent to reading literature, not actively ranged against it. Even those memoirs that hinge on grisly challenges – a book a day (Tolstoy and the Purple Chair) or all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics (The Whole Five Feet) – make no reference to “book addiction” or “hyper-literacy”. If a downside emerges, it does so between the lines.

In the penultimate sentence of his new book, John Carey says that reading “is freedom”, yet he provides more than enough evidence to the contrary. The Unexpected Professor is an autobiography (postwar austerity, grammar school, national service, Oxford, Oxford, Oxford) that doubles as a “selective and opinionated” history of English literature, and a glories-of-reading memoir that doubles as an anti-reading memoir. Carey notes that people like him often prefer reading things to seeing them – typically, his example comes not from his own life but from a poem by Wordsworth – and reflects: “So living your truest life in books may deaden the real world for you as well as enliven it.” But how, judging by this account, does reading enliven things?

Carey confesses to feeling guilty that as an undergraduate he could read all day, while “out in the real world” (there it is again) people were “slogging away”. But it doesn’t seem all that different from his life in the non-real world: “I secured a copy from Hammersmith Public Library . . . and slogged through all sixteen thousand lines of it. It was unspeakably boring” (Layamon’s Brut). “I slogged through it of course, because my aim was to learn, not to have fun” (Johnson’s Lives of the Poets). Even Wordsworth, who showed that reading can spoil you for experience, is read “as a kind of atonement”, in a “microscopically printed” edition that proves “not exactly an On-First-Looking-into-Chapman’s-Homer experience”. Once he had squinted his way through English literature, Carey was free to gorge on European novels, yet even that sounds like a mixed experience. Dostoevsky he found “hard going” and though there were other writers he enjoyed a good deal more – Zola, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann – he still “forced myself to make notes on the endpapers”. If there’s any enlivening going on, it’s not being enacted on life by literature but the other way around: playing cricket at other schools “made me understand better that bit in the Book of Numbers where the Israelites send out spies to size up the opposition . . .”

In What Good Are the Arts?, Carey wrote that the non-literary arts are “locked in inarticulacy”. But literature, in his version, is locked in articulacy, forever making pronouncements and cases and claims. His lifetime of reading, as recounted in this book, has given him nothing, other than the occasional ringing phrase, that he could not have found in some form of pamphlet. In Carey’s account, reading provides an opportunity to engage with writers who share your convictions and to reject the ones who don’t: Milton’s anti-royalism “put me on his side”, “what I liked most fiercely was Jonson’s exposure of rampaging luxury”, “What The Faerie Queene does is mythicise political power, attributing supernatural status to a dictatorial regime, and this makes it, at heart, crass and false”. A telling example of Carey’s picture of literature-as-logic comes when he quotes a well-known passage from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, a reflection on “that element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency”:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

Although this is the passage Carey uses to support his view of Eliot as “the most intelligent of English novelists”, all he says is that she “is unusual in using poetry in the service of thinking . . . The tenderness of the heartbeat and the shock of the roar would be marvellous simply as a poetic moment. But it is also part of an argument.”

It comes down to a vision of language and how it relates to ideas. Carey writes that D H Lawrence “tries to make us see that, if he could, he’d communicate in some other way, freed from the limitations of thought”. But for Philip Davis, in his treatise-like Reading and the Reader, literature allows just such freedom. According to Davis, Eliot is not putting poetry to the service of “thinking”, in Carey’s op-ed sense of the word, but doing the kind of not-quite-thinking enabled by literary language. “Try counting the thoughts in a powerful paragraph in a realist novel,” he writes, after quoting the same passage from Middlemarch: “they are no longer separate units.” Earlier in the book he asserts that, “at its deepest”, an idea possesses more than “just a statable content”.

Carey is blithely confident about the meaning of literary texts but in the past has dismissed efforts to bring aesthetic response into the realm of scientific knowledge. Davis, by contrast, surrenders to literature’s indeterminacy but believes that its impact shows up on a brain scan. He quotes the example of cognitive scientists, his collaborators at the centre for reading research that he runs at the University of Liverpool, who have demonstrated “how a dramatically compressed Shakespearean coinage such as ‘this old man godded me’ excites the brain in a way that ‘this old man deified me’ . . . does not”. Davis claims that science shows “how” a Shakespearean coinage does this – but how literature achieves the effect is exactly what resists not just scientific decoding, but verbal description. “I cannot just talk about reading,” he writes, “when that is precisely not what I shall claim to be a literary way of thinking” (as if a vet used only man-made tools).

One result of Davis’s aversion to the general is a certain overexuberance with regard to quotations. He is constantly offering “a different instance”. When he writes “I can think of a hundred examples . . .” you are justified in fearing he will list them. Shakespeare is likened to “existential physics” and “process philosophy”, and a Shakespearean allusion renders a nonsensical proposition more nonsensical still: “In the readiness of all, the words themselves seem ready when they do come.” Equally forbidding though no more instructive is the sentence that begins: “It is fashionable to talk, after Csikszentmihalyi, of being ‘in the flow’ . . .” Though Davis has none of Carey’s semi-conscious misgivings about reading, he unwittingly exposes one of its greatest dangers. Biron, attacking study at the start of Love’s Labour’s Lost, claims that “light seeking light doth light of light beguile” (in which “light” means respectively the mind, enlightenment, sight and eyes). It might be said that Davis has read too much to write a readable book about reading.

However, Davis’s idea of what literature uniquely offers to the reader is a powerful one, and is shared to some extent by Wendy Lesser, the essayist and literary editor, in her warmer but no less erudite or sophisticated Why I Read, a tribute to what she calls “the serious pleasure of books”. Just as Davis likes writing in which language is used “as a sign of approximation to point to more than itself”, so Lesser admires writers who meet our desire for order “only halfway” (Eça de Queiroz) or give us “only a small part of what is really there” (Penelope Fitzgerald). But Lesser differs from Davis and also from Carey in taking a degree of responsibility: literature is grounded in the capricious reader, not in the permanent present of the text. Carey first read War and Peace in the 1960s but if his feelings about it have changed, he doesn’t tell us, whereas Lesser explains how it overtook Anna Karenina in her affections. And the reader’s shimmying perspective – the reader as human being – is treated as a topic in its own right by the journalist Rebecca Mead in The Road to Middlemarch, in which she traces how a novel that once gratified her teenage “aspirations to maturity and learnedness” has become “a melancholy dissection of the resignations that attend middle age, the paths untrodden and the choices unmade”.

Lesser and Mead treat the reader to a more attractive vision of reading, no less valuable for being far less dutiful, no less “salutary” for accommodating the kinds of pleasures that Lesser describes as “cellulose-based”. Carey’s distinctions between learning and having fun, between life and literature, are cleanly resolved. Just as reading the classics is not slog-work, so the library is not the unreal or anti-real world. “The library had been a place for studying,” Mead writes, of her rather jollier time at Oxford, “but it had also been a place for everything else; seeing friends, watching strangers, flirting and falling in love. Life happened in the library.” Without making the connection, she promotes a similarly unhermetic vision of her engagement with literature, which is not, she writes, just “a form of escapism” but a first-hand mode of existence – as Dickens more than implied when he wrote that reading Eliot’s Adam Bede had taken its place “among the actual experiences and endurances of my life”. When you are “grasped” by a book, Mead argues, “reading . . . feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself”. And you can do it while you smoke.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror