The Pleasure of Reading: 43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books That Inspired Them by Antonia Fraser (editor)

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The Pleasure of Reading: 43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books That Inspired Them by Antonia Fraser (editor)

Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Charlie Pullen
Reviewed by Charlie Pullen
Summary: Some might say there would be little pleasure in reading a lot of people talking about their favourite books, but when these are some of the most popular and celebrated authors around it’s a different story. Antonia Fraser assembles some of the best writers, and proves that the pleasure of reading is worth sharing.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: May 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1408859629

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There has been a trend for lists in recent years, with numerous websites and books cashing in on this craze for cataloguing must-see films, favourite foods, and things to do before you die. The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser, may be, then, the most sophisticated and erudite result of this fascination for listography, since its premise is straightforwardly based around the top ten books chosen by famous authors. Behind this book is the curiosity readers feel for each other or the question, as Fraser puts it, 'What do other people read?' But these people are some of the greatest writers working in recent years, with contributions from Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, and Tom Stoppard and others. The book, however, returns us to those early moments in their lives – before fame and prizes – when reading was a hobby like it is for so many people.

The Pleasure of Reading is not only about the pleasures gained from literature, it is also in itself a pleasure to read. And why wouldn’t it be? The book consists of 43 sections written by some of the most popular novelists, playwrights, and poets in contemporary Anglophone literature, each speaking about their relationships with reading, their childhood favourites, and the books they return to over and over again. These are great recommendations from top authors, but they are also enjoyable stories of childhoods from around the world, often teasingly short memoirs of the material that provoked our best writers to do what they do.

Originally published in 1993, we hear from many of the first line-up: amongst the ranks are those bestselling giants Ruth Rendell and Sue Twonsend, academics and intellectuals like Melvyn Bragg, Germaine Greer, and Hermione Lee, and such distinct poets as Stephen Spender, Roger McGough, and Carol Ann Duffy. Updated for 2015, five new voices join the collection: the poet Emily Berry, the novelist Kamila Shamsie, the travel writer Rory Stewart, the biographer Katie Waldegrave, and the playwright Tom Wells. This new quintet’s diversity in nationality, background, and genre typifies Fraser’s mission to create a sense of the range of reading in people’s lives, which runs throughout the book. There are self-confessed 'addicts', early beginners, and those whose childhood was spent grappling the classics, while there are those, like the novelist Alan Hollinghurst, who preferred listening to music and others who love telephone books, popular fiction, and Harry Potter.

It is hardly surprising that so many of these accomplished writers should have been voracious and relentless readers as children, ones who recount their earliest memories as picking up a parent’s book or listening to a story being told. In The Pleasure of Reading, however, some of the most engaging tales are from those writers whose inductions into reading were not so easy. Jeanette Winterson tells of her parents’ 'prohibition' of literature, and clues us in on how many paperbacks a secretive reader can hide beneath a single mattress. Though, as we learn, it is wise to be wary of such tactics. On the other hand, Sue Townsend, in a twist of irony, admits that she learned how to read when she was off sick from school, absent from a terrible teacher. These accounts stand for what I think is the prime motive behind the book, that is, not only the pleasure of reading but also its value. Winterson and Townsend demonstrate the lengths people go to in order to do something as seemingly passive and simple as read a novel.

There is something surprisingly absorbing about reading another person’s select reading list. Each of these writers has peculiar opinions, tastes, and ways of choosing a book, with Winterson, for example, as a critical and sceptical reader, believing that a book should be chosen carefully so as not to waste time on trash. Townsend, on the other hand, would pull books off the shelf arbitrarily to see what she found. For my part, I approached this book quite freely and casually, starting at the beginning with Spender but then moving to other writers I wanted to hear from (or, alternatively, being drawn to the names I had never heard before) in no particular order, and such is the pleasure of a book based around short sections which you can navigate erratically.

For all the range and variety, however, it soon becomes apparent that a lot of the same titles are destined to come up again and again. Of course, it is to be expected that the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Tolstoy are going to populate the pages, but it might point to a somewhat limited literary canon that continues to dominate our ideas of valuable, formative literature. There are similar but perhaps disappointingly obvious choices from the writers. On several occasions the Bible and Shakespeare 'go without saying', and Bleak House, Dostoyevski, and George Eliot are repeated. For this reason, some of the best moments are when a writer offers up something obscure from their younger years or when they attempt to remember a story long since lost.

A public library, Lessing says, is the most democratic thing in the world, and Fraser extends that ideal of shared reading by making an intriguing book about discussing those novels and poems that are most important to us. The Pleasure of Reading is associated with the charity Give a Book, which aims to encourage reading in schools and prisons, and I think this book would be most effective when read by those who do not have relationships with literature like all these authors do, but I suspect it will be read mostly by those who already love Bleak House and Middlemarch, and who need no more encouragement to return to them.

If you’re a science buff, find more on why we love to read with Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf or see The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller for another selection of great reads.

Buy The Pleasure of Reading: 43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books That Inspired Them by Antonia Fraser (editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Pleasure of Reading: 43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books That Inspired Them by Antonia Fraser (editor) at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Pleasure of Reading: 43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books That Inspired Them by Antonia Fraser (editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Pleasure of Reading: 43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books That Inspired Them by Antonia Fraser (editor) at Amazon.com.


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