Once I could read fluently, reading became my default activity. There were frequent trips to the library, pocket money was spent on books and books were requested as birthday and Christmas presents. Once all the chores were completed there was time for reading. My grandmother, however, had other ideas.
“You should always do something with your hands,” she used to say. “You need to produce something. Even while you’re sitting watching TV or listening to the radio or chatting with your friends you can be knitting, crocheting or embroidering.”
My grandmother worked hard all of her life. After my grandfather came back from the Great War he couldn’t get a job so he opened a greengrocer’s shop. He eventually did get a job and my grandmother ran the shop until a week before she died aged 89! In her spare time she knitted, crocheted, embroidered and made hats. She read the Bible a little each day and indulged in a Sunday newspaper and a women’s magazine once a week. She would rather absorb story through television and radio – leaving her hands free to be productive.
We all need story
Even my grandmother, it seemed. My other grandmother, with whom we lived, had been a tailoress before she married and had children. Then she made clothes for all of her offspring. She would listen to the radio as she did this. We became used to Radio 4 as a constant background.
Later, her grown-up six daughters would pop into the market on the way home from work on a Friday evening, spend all day Saturday running up a new frock and then they’d go out to a dance in the new outfit on Saturday evening. And whilst this was all going on and as they did their hair and make-up they would gossip. That was their form of story.
My grandmother taught my mother how to make clothes and it seemed natural to me then to much of my spare time behind a sewing machine or on the floor pinning and cutting out. Always in the company of Radio 4 – the Archers, the serial, Women’s Hour, the short story, the afternoon play, news, features – all forms of story.
So, both grandmothers were happy – I was learning the necessary skills and I was using my hands to produce something. Yet my teachers and my parents were pleased I was reading well and enjoyed it. They sent me to the library and then weaned me off Enid Blyton. That I’d quickly learned to read and was now fluent was supposed to be a good sign of things to come. I didn’t know why and my head told me that my grandmothers were right. My heart told me that the most delicious thing in the world would be to wade through twenty or so old copies of the Bunty, read one of my Famous Five books in one sitting or, more recently, sit in the shade of a tree on a hot day with a Maeve Binchy. Why?
The pictures are better in the imagination
Someone once said that they preferred radio to television as the pictures were better. Well, in a book without illustrations the pictures are even better. It is entirely up to the reader to interpret all of the scenes suggested by the words. The little black marks disappear and a very three dimensional film with sounds, smells and sensations as well as sights plays out in our heads. Perhaps this is what Roland Barthes was getting at with his famous Death of the Author. What we are alters as we read and what we read alters because of the experiences we bring to that one point in time and space where the text and the reader meet.
Is it empathy we’re learning?
Our reading – and our writing, actually – take us into other worlds. We become the characters we read about. We understand something of their lives that we might not have understood before.
Yes, we read to escape, and yes we read to reassure ourselves that our experience matches that of others. Sometimes we read to find out which outcomes may be on offer for issues that we’re dealing with now.
The writer puts characters into settings defined by time, place and circumstances and sees what becomes of them. You might know several facts about Victorian England. But start writing episodes of Ripper Street and you get more idea of what it was like living in those times.
You might notice too, that those who are widely read are more tolerant, more open-minded and generally see a bigger picture.
Do we learn to walk in another man’s shoes by reading about him? Are we learning empathy? And is it a fantastic trick of nature that this is actually an enjoyable activity - we tend to make ourselves very comfortable as we read and write about the horrors of war and of having a broken heart.
Art elevates the mind by increasing empathy, critical thinking and tolerance, claims research that was conducted on a group that visited a newly opened museum. A control group who did not visit the museum did not make similar progress.
I’ve suspected this for some time and would really like to look at more research into this, possibly being involved myself.
So, that is maybe the answer I need to give my grandmother. I wasn’t being idle as I sat there reading. I was learning to understand the world and increasing my capacity for accepting it.