Heaps of excitement between the covers

THE doomsayers would have you believe that traditional reading is under siege, with youngsters addicted to computer screens and adults slumped in front of the TV.

Steven Russell

It's World Book Day today (March 6), and the National Year of Reading is also about to get into its stride. Steven Russell learns about a unique Suffolk group championing the power of words - and gets some ideas for cracking reads to keep us thrilled, entertained and informed

THE doomsayers would have you believe that traditional reading is under siege, with youngsters addicted to computer screens and adults slumped in front of the TV. The Government reckons we're at a “cultural crunch point” and a study of 10-year-olds points to a fall in the number of children devouring stories and novels each day.

In many ways it was ever thus. Similar concern, more than 25 years ago, led to the birth of the Suffolk Book League - an organisation that last autumn celebrated 25 years of promoting the pleasures of reading.

Its chairman, Brian Morron, recognises the challenge, but certainly isn't ready to raise the white flag in this Nintendo Wii/TV-on-demand/www. world.

“People say 'Oh, nobody reads any more,' but actually I think there are some quite promising signs nowadays, particularly with children buying Harry Potter in such huge numbers and The Richard & Judy Book Club.

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“Those are really positive signs that people do still value reading. But it is being squeezed, just the same, by TV and computers. In those days” - the late 1970s/early 1980s - “I think people felt very concerned, even more than now, about the fact that children in particular wouldn't read any more. I think to some degree their pessimism, fortunately, wasn't justified, but we're not complacent about it, which is why we continue to exist.

“I've noticed with my children they're happy to read - maybe they're not representative of everybody, because they're in a house full of books. They're just as interested in the computers as well, but they manage to find time for books. I think that's the way forward: not to say to children they can't watch TV, but to let them still do those things as well. Once they get into reading, they will enjoy it.

“And, also, not to be snooty about what's being read. None of us” - in the league - “is at all a snob when it comes to reading. I'm equally happy reading Tolstoy as Harlan Coben. If it's a good story, that to me is the most important thing.

“I do think that's one of the things that puts people off. They think you somehow have to be intellectual to be able to read. But all you need is to be interested in a good story: something that's well written.”

It's not the most flattering of similes, but the league is a bit like an iceberg. The visible part above the water is its series of monthly meetings in Ipswich, open to all, to which top-notch speakers are invited: luminaries such as Deborah Moggach, Alexander McCall Smith, Julie Myerson, Doris Lessing, PD James, Louis de Bernieres, Sarah Waters and David Starkey.

Meetings, currently all held at various venues in Ipswich, draw a minimum of 30-40 people. Gatherings are open to both league members - who get cheaper entry and a regular magazine in exchange for their subscription fee - and non-members. A recent talk by the naturalist Richard Mabey attracted a large proportion of non-members.

There's an awful lot going on beneath the surface, too.

The league has been at the heart of an initiative to encourage folk to read the same book, George Orwell's Animal Farm, at about the same time. Publisher Penguin gave 1,000 copies at cost price and they were placed in all sorts of different locations, such as prisons and groups for people with learning difficulties.

This year it's supporting the Suffolk schools Book Mastermind competition, and is putting together a little library for the children's hospice.

Members have also been working with Suffolk Development Agency to put together a booklet called Literary Suffolk, due to launch this spring. It will encourage people to visit the county by highlighting places with a literary connection - either because an author's written about it or because he or she has lived in a particular house.

One thing it's not is a reading group, though.

The book league was essentially the brainchild of Martyn Goff, the driving force behind the Booker Prize. He and author Margaret Drabble had a dream of book leagues being set up around the country, to encourage reading. It's probably fair to say the idea didn't catch on, however.

“In fact, ours is the only one that exists,” laughs Brian. “Suffolk did it; nobody else did, in the end. But we've carried on and that's why we've got our rather quaint name.”

The launch meeting was held in 1982 and was supported by a number of major names from the book world, such as the person who ran publishing house Faber & Faber, and the head of creative writing at the University of East Anglia - “even (raconteur and Call My Bluff stalwart) Frank Muir, for reasons nobody seems able to explain!”

Brian, senior partner at an Ipswich law firm, came to Suffolk in 1989 and joined the league some time afterwards. “I just went along to a meeting on the off-chance and what I liked was the fact it wasn't pompous at all.” He's been its chairman for about seven or eight years.

He's got no doubts about the power of the written word.

“I saw something not long ago which showed that children who read do better at school; children, even, who are read to do better - not just those who read themselves - though both is obviously a good thing. The statistics on illiteracy among people in young offenders' institutions and prisons is horrendous. It's so massive a link - and with chronic unemployment, too.”

Reading also helps us become healthy, rounded individuals, because it takes us somewhere new. “It doesn't matter if it's a novel - it could be history, a biography, anything - but it takes you into somebody else's world where your own imagination helps create that world.

“What I like is that you learn what it is like to be a different person, whether it is a hero or a villain or something in between. It gives you that empathy with other people that you wouldn't otherwise normally have in everyday life.

“I love films, but a film is a huge effort by a whole team of people, including the director, to create that other world, and you don't need to do an awful lot of your own, because all that emotional work has been done for you. In a book, of course, that world has been created by another person, but is filtered through your own imagination, and that's how you then learn what it's like to be another person.

“I think a good example of that is the Mark Haddon book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nigh-time. How many people would have read a textbook about what it's like to be an autistic teenager? I wouldn't have bothered. But it was a massive bestseller - a cross-over book, with children and adults reading that book in their thousands. And as a result we all now have an emotional understanding, and an intellectual one, of what it's like to be an autistic teenager.

“Only through a novel are you going to get that in large numbers. It teaches people in a way that no other medium can do.

“They'll probably make a film of it, and the film will be seen by people, but I really think to have maximum effect you need the book, because the book stays with you in a way that a film probably doesn't. Because it takes longer to read, it's with you for a while, and it really gets into your head. It's that intimate experience which a film, however much it is good, can't quite achieve.”

Suffolk Book League's page-turners - tomes to thrill, amuse, move, intrigue and inform

Classic novels:

Vanity Fair by Thackeray - a wicked, wanton woman with no-one to match her in literature or life.

Anna Karenina by Tolstoy - another very modern heroine and the most readable of all Russian novels. Strong characters and scenes of such emotional intensity you never forget them.

Sons and Lovers - D H Lawrence's autobiographical masterpiece. A novel about family, class and, of course, sex.

North and South by Mrs Gaskell - the author of the recently televised Cranford, and an even better read.

Modern novels:

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers - funny, intelligent and a narrative that zips along.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - an epic story set in Nigeria during the Biafran War; ambitious and exotic.

Second to Last in the Sack Race by David Nobbs - The creator of Reginald Perrin is uncanny in his ability to describe the insecurities of childhood, but always with his usual wry humour.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini - the gripping story of a boyhood friendship destroyed by jealousy, fear, and the kind of ruthless evil that transcends mere politics.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon - funny, moving, an unforgettable read and an astonishing achievement to get inside the head of an autistic teenager.

Crime novels:

The Rebus series by Ian Rankin

Manhatten Nocturne by Colin Harrison - An atmospheric American nightmare.

Tell No One by Harlan Coben - also American, very clever and now also filmed; but read the book first.

Biography/autobiography:

Grey is the Colour of Hope by Irina Ratushinskaya - political prisoners in Russia; a story of courage, hope and solidarity.

If This be a Man by Primo Levi - how hope can survive, even in Hell. Astonishingly, you feel better after you've read it.

Karl Marx by Francis Wheen - a gift of a subject for any biographer: a man full of contradictions in his private life and whose theories, as explained by Wheen, are still relevant today.

Forthcoming speakers at Suffolk Book League meetings include Anthony Bailey, biographer of John Constable; David Nobbs, the creator of Reginald Perrin; Barbara Erskine; Orange Prize-winning novelist Helen Dunmore; novelist, biographer and journalist Anne Sebba; Meg Rosoff; Jon Canter, and Louis de Bernières.

Entrance fees for meetings: members £3; non-members £6; students/non-waged free. Membership is £12.50 for individuals, £15 for families.

Web link: www.sbl.org.uk

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