Posts Tagged 'reading'

‘Literature truly nourishes the hungry’

Last year wasn’t a very great writing year for me. Nor a great reading year either.

I think I lost faith in literature. I started to wonder what was the point of putting all these words down on paper or a screen, sending them out into the world while the world seemed in so many ways to be falling apart. And if I couldn’t see the point of writing myself, why would I want to read other people’s words? Or, if I didn’t want to read other people, why would I bother to write myself?

I didn’t write, so I didn’t read. I didn’t read, so I didn’t write. The world continued to fall apart regardless.

For Christmas I got Burying the Typewriter, by Carmen Bugan, from someone who didn’t realise I’d pretty much given up reading.

In this memoir of Ceausescu’s Romania, Bugan’s father bought two typewriters. One stayed on the living room table, and 12-year-old Carmen wrote poems on it. The other was a secret typewriter. Carmen’s parents dug it up and typed anti-Ceausescu protest leaflets on it all night. Every morning, they buried it again in the back garden.

Ion Bugan went to prison for five years because of that secret typewriter and the words he wrote on it. The rest of the family was starved, ostracised, spied on and relentlessly persecuted by the secret police. The only teacher who dared show Carmen any kindness at school was her literature teacher, Lucia, who secretly gave her salami sandwiches.

Carmen writes:

 ‘With time, she [Lucia] will become the reason I believe that literature truly nourishes the hungry. She will become the reason I love morphology and syntax, and she will suffer with me through my family’s nightmares and through my intense love of poetry, which often makes me confuse the worlds of reality and imagination. I will never, for the rest of my life, know or love a teacher more.’

While I was reading these words, the British press was full of words about Romanians – words like job stealers, benefits scroungers. I wonder what Carmen Bugan, who knows what it is to starve, who has this astonishing faith in literature, thinks about those words; the power they have.


I’m back to writing again. And to reading. I felt humbled by Burying the Typewriter. And stupid too, to have doubted the relevance of literature. Literature can be a salami sandwich when you’re starving. It can be a prison sentence. The difference between a closed door and an open one, into another country,  to a better life.

This post also appears on ABBA today.

The Long Winter

by Laura Ingalls Wilder is the only book I want to be reading at the moment. I’ve written about it over on ABBA today; would love to hear others’ cold weather literary favourites…

Who has a right to comment?

There’s a really interesting debate here about the merits of analysing young adult books for the beauty (or otherwise) of their prose.

It reminds me of my friend, who was absolutely outraged when I told her that an adult book group had recently read Dream Land and then invited me to discuss it with them. if her book group had chosen a YA book, she said, she would have walked out in protest.

Yes, I have supportive friends.

Her point (I think) was not so much that Dream Land, or any other YA book, is unworthy of serious discussion, but that discussion by adults is a kind of contradiction in terms, showing the book is not doing the job it was written – or marketed – for. As a book for teens, the people who should be reading and discussing it are teenagers themselves.

I don’t myself see why engagement from children and teens has to exclude engagement from adults, although I do think that many well-read adults will read and analyse a book in a different (not necessarily more sophisticated or valid) way than younger readers.

But my friend does have a point about these debates over YA literature, which all too often resemble all the other debates about young people today – i.e. completely lacking in input from the people in question. When an articulate teen does join the fray the response is one of David Attenborough-like hushed awe to a sighting of a rare, theoretically cherished but rather misunderstood elusive beast…

Shhh! It might run away!

Gone but not (entirely) forgotten

A question from the Willesden Green Library reading group, who have just read Dream Land:

is it true, as they’ve heard other writers say, that once a book is finished and published the author forgets it, having long since moved on to the next thing?

I too have heard this, and never used to believe it. How is it possible to forget something you’ve spent so much time and effort over? I thought it would be almost the equivalent of forgetting your own child.

I realise now that’s not the right analogy. Maybe something closer would be the relationship to a former love.

For a time you were utterly obsessed with your love. You knew everything about this person, your life was utterly bound up in them. But then you parted and it ended. Children grow and change in themselves and their relationship with you. Former lovers never do; they are locked away in the time it was and the person they were when it ended. Just as books, once they’re on the page, are fixed in the time you wrote them and the ending you chose for them. Even if they are now off having meaningful relationships with other people…

I’m still on good terms with these former loves of mine. I look back on them with affection, surprise occasionally (that good…?), not too much embarrassment as yet, though sometimes a feeling that it could probably have been better. I’m happy to have the chance to get reacquainted. And it’s fascinating to hear other people talking about them, seeing things I didn’t realise at the time, or never guessed were there at all.

Thanks to the members of the Willesden Green Library reading group for so many insightful comments and questions on Sunday. Also many thanks to Hunting Raven Bookshop in Frome, for organising a book reading and signing on Saturday, and to everyone who came. It’s a wonderful privilege to have a chance to talk to readers about my books.

Right, now I can get back to thinking about the next thing, the new love in my life.

previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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