THE PLEASURE OF READING is a superb idea, a collection of essays from 43 famed authors discussing inspirations and favourite books. All proceeds go to a charity that will see books acquired and distributed to people that need them, no not book addicts like the Kernels, people less fortunate that have no access to them. Contributing authors include; Margaret Atwood, J. G. Ballard, Melvyn Bragg, A. S. Byatt, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Gray, Germaine Greer, Alan Hollinghurst, Doris Lessing, Candia McWilliam, Edna O’Brien, Ruth Rendell, Tom Stoppard, Sue Townsend, Jeanette Winterson, Emily Berry, Kamila Shamsie, Rory Stewart, Katie Waldegrave and Tom Wells. THE PLEASURE OF READING is available in Australia from Bloomsbury Publishing, it should be available from all good bookstores or you can purchase from HERE. Enjoy Kernel Morgan’s fine review of this great idea…….all the best…..JK.
THE PLEASURE OF READING is a collection of essays from famous authors about their favourite books and how their passion for reading developed. The book is a charity project to raise awareness and funds for ‘Give A Book’, a UK based group that provides books for primary schools, prisons, and people battling cancer. The collection is 318 pages long and contains 43 essays and an introduction from the editor Antonia Fraser. At the end of the book the reader is provided a series of mini bios of all of the contributing authors and their most notable works, organised according to the age of the contributor. The authors I was most eager to read essays from were Germaine Greer, A. S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, and Ruth Rendell.
One of the selling points of this collection is the diversity of the contributors. THE PLEASURE OF READING is a revision of a 1992 project celebrating the bicentenary of British newsagency chain WHSmith. In the 23 years since the original publication 11 of the contributors have died and 5 new young authors have been added. Of the 43 authors, 31 (or 72%) were born before 1950, with the oldest, Stephen Spender, being born in 1909.
Antonia Fraser explains in the introduction that the authors were brought up in Canada, China, Ireland, India, New Zealand, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Germany. The majority are of course English, and at a glance I suspect many of those raised out of England were white British ex-pats. This in no way minimises the unique childhood experiences that westerner growing up in foreign cultures – how the perspective gained impacts positivity about diversity into English culture – but it should be acknowledged that the collection is not overflowing with people of colour.
I enjoyed the essay and “My favourite books” list of Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy who describes growing up in a bookless house and calls P. G. Wodehouse “Champagne to Dicken’s red wine.” She names T. S. Eliot as her favourite poet “for his combination of risk and control” citing ‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws, Scuttling across the floors of silent seas’ as the first modern lines that shock. ALICE IN WONDERLAND was also a book that held a lot of meaning to Ms Duffy and opened her imagination.
Buchi Emecheta, a Nigerian novelist, tells of how HANSEL & GRETEL was the first story she ever read, a book of fairy tales being donated to her west African school by a charity organisation. She recounts how she related to David in Dicken’s DAVID COPPERFIELD. She loved Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, and never came across a book by a black person until she entered England.
Speaking of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Germaine Greer says “Alice was the first thing I read where I didn’t give two hoots about what happened next because I was so enchanted by how the thing happened that was happening as I read.”
Margaret Atwood describes having nightmares after reading the works of Edgar Allen Poe in the school library, and identifying with the whale in MOBY DICK instead of the humans.
Doris Lessing says she is uneasy about how much she adored Milne’s WINNIE THE POOH because “the hero is a stupid greedy little bear.” WIND IN THE WILLOWS was another formative childhood book about animals. At sixteen, the book that started her on a “trajectory of discovery” was H. G. Wells THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME.
S. Byatt said she likes to read LORD OF THE RINGS when ill or depressed because “it is compelling narrative and there is no sex and no real moral problems to agitate the mind”, and she has never been able to read C. S. Lewis because “there is a nasty moral in a sugary pill there.”
Ruth Rendell read Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT just two years after it was first published, and of Thomas Hardy’s novels said “Today I find JUDE too painful to reread and THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE almost suicidally grim”.
I have a couple of gripes with the layout. I would have preferred some of the information from the mini bios to sit with the essay of the author, rather than as an appendix at the end. I know that is standard format for anthologies, but in this case – non-fiction personal essays – I think birth year and country, and notable works would be useful things to sit adjacent to the content, to provide context. Some authors wrote novels, some screenplays, some were journalists etc. It would have been nice to see the type of writing the author aspired to contrast with who inspired them. In this format it is a lot of flicking from front to back, unless you are familiar with the author’s work already.
Apparently all authors were asked to nominate a top ten list of their favourite books, but some declined with, as Antonia Fraser describes, groans of ‘I hate lists’. So 10 of the 43 pieces do not have the sub-heading “My favourite books” at the end. Writers are an unruly bunch, they like to buck the system, so complete uniformity is perhaps an unreasonable expectation. There was a failure to section off two top ten lists from the main text of the essays. A numbered or bulleted list format would have been more stylistically pleasing than a jumbled block paragraph, some with disclaimers and interjections and explanations and some just with titles separated by semi-colons.
I found the childhood books the most interesting for all of the authors. When it came to later in life many of the authors cited THE BIBLE, THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE, MADAM BOVARY, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and all the usual suspects. Although, when nominating Dickens and Austen and Evelyn Waugh it was interesting to see which novel in particular the authors held in highest regard.
Kernel Morgan is an author of short fiction, an anthology editor, and a technical writer. Her debut collection was SNIGGERLESS BOUNDULATIONS. She enjoys scowling at children and bursting bubbles. She can be tweeted and stalked at @queenboxi.