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Carmen Callil, Nicholas Carr, Jane Davis, Mark Haddon, Blake Morrison, Tim Parks, Michael Rosen, Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai, Stop What You're Doing And Read This!

London : Vintage, 2011, 181 pages. £4.99. ISBN: 978-0-099-56594-9
Fanny Delnieppe
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Carmen Callil, Nicholas Carr, Jane Davis, Mark Haddon, Blake Morrison, Tim Parks, Michael Rosen, Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai, Stop What You're Doing And Read This! London : Vintage, 2011, 181 pages. £4.99. ISBN: 978-0-099-56594-9

Texte intégral

1Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! is a collection of ten essays published by Vintage in 2011. In the publisher’s words, the book is a ‘manifesto’ exhorting people to make reading part of their daily lives. Too few people read today and too many are dissatisfied, anxious and isolated. Reading, all ten authors argue, turns out to be more than necessary in a fast-moving, fragmented, and technology-obsessed society and this is what the essays set out to demonstrate.

2Although they all share a passion for reading, the contributors come from backgrounds as various as the worlds of publishing, fiction and non-fiction writing, social enterprise, science, teaching and research. The essays thus show reading in various lights and the book manages to be illuminating while remaining an easy read. Even if, now and then, some literary theory transpires—the Barthesian idea of the authorial status of the reader or the poststructuralist view of the self as a linguistic construct—almost all authors display their gifts as storytellers and their argumentation is always based on their personal experience—the books they read during childhood and after, the classes they taught, the people they met.

3Of course, they talk about the pleasures of reading, of being transported to another world or of succumbing to the spell cast by a writer. Reading, they argue, provides a sense of comfort and companionship especially when one feels lonely. But perhaps more importantly, reading changes lives. From an economic and social point of view, writers Zadie Smith and Michael Rosen contend, the library acts as a gateway to better opportunities, especially for the children of immigrants and of the economically deprived. Yet it is the idea of an intellectual and spiritual change that recurs in most of the essays, in those by author Blake Morrison, Carmen Callil—the founder of Virago—and novelist Jeanette Winterson more prominently. It is also to be found in the contributions by Nicholas Carr and by Drs Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai, where it is backed up by scientific evidence. Reading, it seems, causes alterations in one’s brain and, therefore, in one’s way of thinking, seeing, feeling and, ultimately, being.

4Above all, literature is vital because it helps us make sense of our lives. Blake Morrison, Carmen Callil and Michael Rosen hold that, because the stories some books tell seem to be our own or our family’s, they can deepen our understanding of ourselves. For Jeanette Winterson, books ‘get you home,’ that is, they remind you of who you are. Besides, they provide you with the language to describe and thus comprehend your experiences and deepest emotions and this corresponds to a view shared by both Blake Morrison and Jane Davis, the founder of The Reader Organisation, a charity which consists in read-aloud groups in which all the members can interrupt the flow of reading and react to what is being read. For the latter as well as for Mark Haddon, literature is all about being human: novels ‘articulate precisely what it feels like to be a human being’ (Haddon) and literature is nothing if not ‘the holder of human value, human meaning.’ (Davis).

5Notwithstanding all the benefits of reading from an individual’s point of view and, perhaps, more unexpectedly, several of the authors are intent on refuting the idea of reading as a solitary or antisocial activity. For Zadie Smith, the people reading together in a public library are the emblem of a community of individuals working in a place which, because it is a public service, is itself emblematic of the communal values defining Britain. Nicholas Carr points out that reading makes us more empathetic. For Michael Rosen as for Jane Davis, reading out loud to others turns out to be a potent way of communicating with, and connecting to, other people while enriching our reading experience. For Jane Davis and Blake Morrison, it is in fact way of confronting and sharing our deepest emotions, what the former, borrowing from Matthew Arnold, refers to as our ‘buried lives’; reading here becomes a ‘sharing of selves.’

6However, most of the authors show awareness of the fact that the readers of the collection are likely to be dedicated ones, already convinced of the positive value of reading, and lament the poor number of people who read. Mark Haddon, for one, recommends focusing on what prevents people from reading. He dismisses technology and TV and cites poverty, poor literacy, library closures—for which Zadie Smith in her essay criticises the present cabinet—and feelings of cultural exclusion as examples of ‘the real threats to reading.’ Jeanette Winterson, on the other hand, blames homogenised mass culture and the general contempt for books and art. She also mentions the failure of the education system, which is developed in the essays by Jane Davis and Tim Parks.

7Surprisingly enough for some, education—school as well as university—is indeed pointed out as a major culprit. Tim Parks, for instance, warns us against the danger of making reading yet another act of compulsive and frenetic consumption and incriminates school for initiating us into this model—school which privileges quantity over quality, school which transforms reading into a search for information that can afterwards be regurgitated for the exam. For Jane Davis who reminds us that most people—including those with a university degree—live outside the world of literature, the way literature is taught at university is no better. It is indeed ‘ghettoised on courses and in high culture, with too little human meaning acknowledged,’ especially when taught by those professional scholars ‘for whom reading is impersonal and abstract, and almost always cut off from life as we live it.’ This in part explains why the author advocates a ‘Reading Revolution,’ based on the model of shared reading she has adopted for The Reader Organisation. Convincingly, she argues that even experienced readers might want to try shared reading as literature, no longer understood as a means of relieving the poor, the sick and the unhappy, becomes a way of both finding the language to express our deepest feelings and of building relationships. And the need for these, she explains, is everywhere present in what she describes as our fractured, low-affect, language-impoverished society.

8For Tim Parks who believes the self is a linguistic construct, the interest in reading lies in the parallel between novel writing and the way we construct, or write, ourselves and others. Against the generalized consumer impulse, he argues for a way of reading that combines both pleasure and critical awareness. Critical awareness—even towards those books which are deemed worth reading—is achieved through a kind of meta-reading which consists in paying attention, while reading, to the way we are engaging with the writer and responding to him. Understanding our reaction to a book, understanding what kind of reader we are, are keys to understanding ourselves better.

9One of the other main issues addressed in the collection concerns the future of books and of reading in our technology-obsessed world. To the question of whether books will disappear, Carmen Callil and Mark Haddon answer a definite ‘no’ as books are a vital need for the human race in its search for meaning. The former doubts that machines like Kindles or iPads will eventually replace printed books: ‘Books are like gardens; a Kindle of an iPad like a supermarket—it makes life easier but one doesn’t want to loiter in it.’ Both authors agree that what matters in the final analysis is not the medium but the words and the stories and that these can be adapted to any medium.

10Nicholas Carr contemplates a more disquieting future for books, one involving a change in form as the written word shifts from paper to screen. In the face of the idea that is gaining ground according to which books are not interactive enough and that they require a digital upgrade, he indeed imagines some likely additions that could be made to the text in the form of online tools and messaging systems. Echoing the view expressed by many of the other contributors on the creative nature of reading, he insists on demonstrating that reading a book is far from being a passive activity, that, indeed, from the brain’s perspective, entering a new world through reading is not only a metaphor. Relying on research conducted by psychologists and neurobiologists, he shows that reading is in fact an enactment, but one that requires calm and concentration and will therefore not tolerate any eye-catching diversions.

11In the essay concluding the collection, Drs Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai concentrate on the changes the digital revolution will inevitably bring about to our reading brain. They argue that, over time, man has developed a complex reading circuit that has affected his way of thinking and that the brain structures involved in this circuit depend, among other things, on the medium through which the words are conveyed. A different medium implies a different reading circuit and the researchers ask the question of whether digital culture will create readers more or less able to think deeply and autonomously. If changes in how we read cause alterations in how we think, the question seems indeed crucial for the social, intellectual, and eventually ethical development of our species.

12Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! thus does more than explain the pleasures and benefits of reading. It places high stakes on the capacity of books for the betterment of individuals and of society and, whether one agrees or not with some of the arguments, it has the merit of asking important questions. It may encourage those who do not read much to make books part of their lives and alert more accomplished readers to the possible threats to reading that they may easily overlook or forget, precisely because they are too strongly convinced of the powers of reading and take the future of books for granted.

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Fanny Delnieppe, « Carmen Callil, Nicholas Carr, Jane Davis, Mark Haddon, Blake Morrison, Tim Parks, Michael Rosen, Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai, Stop What You're Doing And Read This! »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 47 | 2014, mis en ligne le 24 novembre 2014, consulté le 29 janvier 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Fanny Delnieppe

EA 4277 (ICTT) Université d’Avignon

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