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

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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