|Posted by Mark Cantrell on April 15, 2016 at 3:35 PM|
You don't need golden chocolate balls for this kind of embassy
The Publishers Association wants to recruit 10,000 Reading Ambassadors to promote the joy of literature, so Mark Cantrell shares a few thoughts on this double-edged and potentially subversive pasttime...
AS a novelist with a few works under my belt, I should embrace the concept of reading ambassadors, and I am indeed agreeable – but there's a part of me that laments they are even necessary.
In this day and age, there's a lot competing for our attention, so maybe we shouldn't be too surprised that the Publishers Association (PA) has issued a call for people to volunteer as Reading Ambassadors – the more people take up reading the better right?
The organisation wants to recruit 10,000 of these advocates for the pleasures – and practical benefits – of reading by 2020. It points out that reading for pleasure is essential to developing literacy skills – skills we who are already pleasure readers doubtless take for granted.
As the author and cosmologist Carl Sagan once observed, books – and therefore reading – is the closest thing humans have to magic.
“What an astonishing thing a book is,” he noted in Cosmos (1980). “It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years.
“Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."
Books don't just break the shackles of time; reading can break the rather less esoteric chains that bind us to our place in society.
Think of the medieval peasants who took up their letters so they might better understand the law and use it to challenge their social superiors. Move forward in time, and think of the central place literacy had in the struggle for social and economic justice throughout the course of the industrial revolution, and into the beginnings of our modern age.
Even now, in parts of the world (and even right here at home), literacy, and indeed literature, is an important vehicle in the campaign to overcome social injustices and to forge a better society. Literature and literacy are essential in the ongoing journey towards civilisation and a more humane existence for us all, but sometimes it feels as if the demands and distractions of modern living are pulling us ever further away from this. As a culture, as a society, as a species, we turn away from them at our peril.
All this must seem a little heavy, for those of us sat at our leisure and pleasure with a book that conveys some entertaining flight of fancy; a little escapism, for sure, but the right – as much as the ability – to sit and read so is the product of a long, hard struggle for more than just the freedoms of a good book.
For my own part, and I acknowledge it's barely even a hypothesis let alone a theory, I suggest that literature – and to some extent literacy – here in the UK has never really managed to claw its way entirely free of antique attitudes of class superiority.
For a long time, writing was the preserve of a privileged few; either specialised technocrats – the priestly bureaucrats of ancient Sumer or Egypt or even mediaeval Europe – or some learned caste of philosophers and intellectuals. For the rulers and their immediate subordinates, lording it over the largely illiterate masses, literacy was a tool of their statescraft; an elite skill that was as much a symbol of their high status.
Move into the modern age, and literacy was a hallmark of an educated middle class: a tool for business, a sign of higher social standing. Literature, meanwhile, was the hallmark of cultural superiority over the cruder lower orders, the labouring and serving classes, who by their very 'nature' were beneath such things.
Despite the emergence of mass market paperback fiction in the 19th and particularly the 20th centuries, I'm not convinced literature ever quite escape this 'them and us' distinction. The 'lower orders' may have been required to have a basic level of literacy to function in the industrial economy, thus ushering in the age of mass literacy, but literature – reading for pleasure – was not something for which they were ever really deemed worthy.
We find the echoes of this elitism in the disdain aimed at mass market paperback fiction of the last century – pulp fiction and all that – which itself rather echoed the 19th Century disapproval for the penny dreadfuls of the age.
Reading was never quite right and proper for the lower social ranks, so of course their reading tastes were by definition 'lower', as were the works they consumed. Indeed, it strikes me that the modern day snobbery that surrounds the distinction between 'literary' fiction and 'genre' fiction, is very much a hangover from this archaic elitism.
Literary fiction, of course, may no longer be associated with a definitive attachment to social class, at least in any overt sense, but it remains 'superior' fiction for 'superior' minds. But that's enough of my cod-theorising on the social history of reading; back to the PA's call for reading ambassadors.
If by any chance you fancy becoming one of these ambassadors, the new initiative is designed to encourage volunteers to undertake a range of activities to promote more reading for pleasure, from starting a book group to volunteering in a library. Ambassadors will have access to information, resources and guidance on how to implement activity in their local area, the organisation said.
“Spreading the love of reading in your local community by becoming a Reading Ambassador could not be easier,” said Stephen Lotinga, the PA's chief executive. “From creating a book corner at work, to reading with a child every day or even hosting a blind date book session at any club or group, there are many ways it is possible to make a difference and improve people’s life chances.”
The PA is looking to recruit ambassadors at a number of literary festivals. The recruitment drive got underway at the Oxford Literary Festival earlier this month, but the organisation will be signing people up at the Hay Literary Festival (26 May to 5 June 2016; the Edinburgh International Book Festival (13 to 29 August); and Cheltenham (7 to 16 October).
“Reading for pleasure ensures strong literacy skills which is vital for successful future development. Such skills contribute to the UK’s economic competitiveness, as well as boosting health, confidence, happiness and social mobility,” the organisation said in its announcement.
It's kind of sad that such a campaign has to be couched in such utilitarian terms, but that is perhaps what literacy and literature has always been, really; the fanciful stuff comes later, emerging out of the practicalities to caper with the human imagination and make a mockery of sober utility.
Like it or not, literacy is a dangerous skill: double-edged and subversive. When we dare to dream, that's when the magic of literature and literacy finds its power.
For more information or to sign up to be a Reading Ambassador, visit www.readingambassadors.co.uk. There's also a hashtag #ReadingAmbassador.
9 April 2016
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