Thursday, 5 March 2015

World Book Day: The Act of Reading

Ha ha ha, I bet you thought I'd just gone and missed another week! Not so, friends! Instead, I simply delay a day so that I can give you a post on a nicely auspicious occasion.

World Book Day. That's a big concept right there, isn't it - and justly so. Because books are big (I say, glaring sidelong as the two critical anthologies who were probably the burned out husks of dead stars in a past life). Books are, in fact, possibly the biggest things in the world. They carry not only their own worlds, but are connected in turn to every other book, and every other world that created or was created by each of them.

Reading a book is at once one of the most vast and yet most personal things you can do. While you stare out into that vast interconnected worldliness, you see also the heart of the author, beating away in the core, and hear their voice behind the voices of your favourite characters.

People have read books in very different ways through history. For example, what we think of today as a solitary pursuit was, in the 18-1900s a social occasion, where families or groups of friends would come together to have a book read aloud to them, which they would then discuss.

Before that, books were almost exclusively the domain of the rich, and so cheaply-printed "reviews" would give meticulous run-downs of plot, theme and message, quoting extensively all the while. Different reviews could be swapped and exchanged among groups to garner different opinions on a story no readers would ever be able to access in full.

Earlier even than that, the practive of orally passing on a story was so entrenched in our history that many of our earliest pieces of folklore spend lots of time describing the characters doing exactly the same thing - gathering together around the hall to listen to a story, often memorised or read off runic cues carved into a scrap of wood or stone.

Yet through all that, the place of reading as a cornerstone of culture has never really changed. Even the word "reading" has come to mean everything from studying to the very act of picking up social cues from other human beings. The weirdness of English-language etymology aside, our societal and cultural views of reading connotate strongly to notions of intelligence, integrity, open-mindedness and individualised self-improvement.

This has been a pretty broad post so far - and I apologise if my vaguaries have confused you. But now let's step back, go back to the personal. Back to that author's heart at the centre of the massive world of books.

Reading was, and continues to be, an essential part of my life, a vital part that has seen me through a great number of difficult times, and something that I, in return, have chosen to follow through to higher and higher levels of academic study. My life, of course, is a very small thing on a grand scale, but it would be a smaller thing still were it not for books, their worlds, and the places those worlds have led me, both within and without the printed page.

My life would not be what it is without books, and nor, I realise, would I. My selfhood is bound up so intensely with books that removing them would change my fundamental identity. Charley would not be Charley as I understand her, or as anyone who knows, has ever known, or may ever know her.

That's a strange thought. Particularly when it all stems from an act that is so utterly commonplace and unremarkable that we barely give it a passing thought in our day to day lives.

Vast, and personal. Ancient, and modern. Together, and apart. From the days before paper, to the days after.

But somehow, we're all still reading.

Happy World Book Day, everyone!

~ Charley R

P.S. I apologise for any existential crises this may trigger in my readership.

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