We all have our likes and dislikes in reading. We naturally gravitate towards some books, while others can feel like exploring alien territory. Of course, venturing into the unknown and discovering the unfamiliar is an essential part of a reading life. If you always read the same sort of thing, it can be like hearing the same old gossip, the same old grumbles at the bus stop. There may be a comfort in the routine, but it has the air of the mausoleum about it.
There is always a risk in reaching out to the new. That author whose work you don’t know may not be worth knowing. Why all that praise quoted on the cover? On the other hand, and perhaps more likely, you may find something that fills a space on the bookshelf that is actually a space inside your head.
When this happens, what you have found is a fresh way of looking at things. This, surely, is one of the great benefits of literature: we find new ways of looking at the world through stories. Indeed, if further proof were needed that as human beings, our perceptions of the world vary so much; you need look no further than a new book. Seeing something from a different angle can be refreshing or challenging or disconcerting. It can help us change our minds a little. Or it gives an opportunity to focus more clearly on what we feel. However we react, we find our thoughts energised.
Literature’s central purpose, surely, is to enrich our imagination. It may develop our sympathies, also our knowledge and understanding. But these qualities are secondary to literature’s ability to widen our awareness beyond ourselves. Do we value a piece of writing because it directly relates to our lives? Or do we value it for the opportunity to see how others see the world, and how there are other worlds? In Other Voices, Other Rooms. Truman Capote coined the perfect title. A good book opens a door that you never really noticed before. Who wants to read about what they already know?
This is perhaps a problem with generic, ‘pop’ literature. As Julian Barnes once wryly noted, publishers these days are only interested in printing “copies of novels that are copies of already successful novels.” So often, these books only reflect the lives of their readers (or perhaps their authors; there could be a reason so many novels in the last 100 years tend to follow the routines of middle-to upper class white men). Yet this homogenises viewpoints and restricts the realities we can uncover through a good book.
A similar, but slightly different concern, comes from the well-meaning educators who believe that children should be given only the books they find directly relevant. Don’t give them Tom Sawyer or Treasure Island or Just William. Don’t show them about the world beyond what they can see. This is an attitude that misses out on the potential growth of awareness that a wide culture has to offer. The world was not created yesterday, and the world created contains so much. So much that we need to feed our minds on.
I am not certain that we immediately recognize our lives even when they are depicted in literature. Reading lends distance as well as immediacy to the subject matter of a novel. There may be some direct relevance to our lives, but the narrative is told from an unfamiliar angle. ‘This is about me’ may be a response not to how we really are but how we think we are.
What this often comes down to is a question of narrative. If the narrative voice is honest, then the story will be interesting to anyone with sufficient intellect and empathy to place themselves there within the pages of the book. People who are surprised that a white man can appreciate Toni Morrison or that a gentile can appreciate Isaac Bashevis Singer know nothing about literature’s power and purpose. Its purpose is to enrich; its power is the enchantment it contains to achieve that purpose.
We seem to be – rightly – at a point when people are finally waking up to the dawning realisation that, as with so many aspects of society, we do a disservice to children if we classify books (or anything, for that matter) as being “for boys” or “for girls”. Books are for everyone.
Yet in many ways we are still fighting the same battles. With genres like ‘chick lit’ and ‘lad lit’, we seem to be dividing experience at a moment when we need more harmony and universalism.
Surely, it is important for us all to push back against being boxed into stereotypes and force fed culture “made for us” (as if that were possible). If books teach us anything, it’s that things can change, and there are a million new worlds to be found. So, let’s make our own world one we’d like to read about.
About the author of this article
Geoffrey Heptonstall is a widely published poet, contributing to anthologies and magazines throughout the world. He lives in Cambridge where he has taught Writing at Anglia Ruskin University and at various locations for the Open College. He has been a writer with The London Magazine, especially as a poetry reviewer. His publications include a novel, Heaven’s Invention [Black Wolf 2017], a full collection of poetry, The Rites of Passage [Cyberwit 2020], and a number of short stories, and essays for a wide variety of publications. He is also a playwright with many plays and monologues broadcast, performed and/or published. He was an associate writer with Duck Down Theatre Co 2013-15. @geoffreywrites