Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Pauline Chandler asks "Who Needs Stories?"


It still amazes me that many adults don’t read fiction. I used to take it for granted that everyone did, until a chance comment from a friend, an artist, shocked me to the core.  ‘No, I don’t read stories’, she said, ‘in fact I don't read much at all. I don't have time'. She might as well have said ‘I don’t breathe.’


Sadly, I’ve since discovered that ‘not reading stories’ is quite common, even among teachers. Perhaps it’s all that paperwork. No time to read anything other than the latest advice about improving their performance and meeting the agreed ‘learning outcomes'. Pah.

Fiction didn’t feature much on the curriculum in my own school days, during the 50s and 60s, and there was certainly no discussion about what we read in our spare time. We were allowed to read a book, carefully censored, at playtime, as aimless running about was frowned on. In class we read the Greek Myths, Arthur Grimble’s ‘A Pattern of Islands’ (non-fiction) and CS Forester’s ‘The Ship’, which I can’t now recall. Then, because I took Latin, I was not able to take English Literature for O Level, so it was something of an eye-opener when I came to study fiction for A Level. Suddenly, there was a world of commentary on the human condition, from such authors as CS Lewis, Iris Murdoch, George Eliot, Conrad, Lawrence, Hemingway and the ‘moderns’, contemporary writers, Alan Sillitoe, Shelagh Delaney,Alan Paton, Arnold Wesker, James Baldwin, all wonderful authors who spoke about relationships, love, sex, race and  gender, without prejudice. And my cramped wings spread as I started to understand important lessons, under the gentle persuasion of their stories. 
Someone once said to me, ’You can’t learn about life from books, you know’. Pah. You can, you know. 


All the stories we share with our children teach them the real stuff they need to live well. About friends and kindness, respect for the earth and living things, about war and peace, famine and plenty, justice and injustice. About families and how to make things right after a falling out, about serious illness and disability and what life is like when you lose someone you love, about heroism and sacrifice and survival. How to judge what’s worth aiming for, and what’s not, what will stand through time, and what will fade away like mist.  

This magic doesn’t stop when you grow up. The stories just get better, richer, more challenging.

Do you know anyone who doesn't read stories? I wonder what would make them start. Is it too late when you're grown up? 

Pauline Chandler 
www.paulinechandler.com



Coming soon! A new edition of 'Warrior Girl'.
A story set in the time of Joan of Arc.    

Published by Cybermouse Books.       

22 comments:

Lee said...

A large number of intelligent, compassionate, and creative people whom I know don't read fiction. Maybe we need to ask ourselves where else they find their stories. And whether it's even necessary to 'make them start.'

madwippitt said...

Gosh your post brought back memories of classroom reading at primary school: we had a small bookcase - well, more of a shelf within a glass fronted bookcase really, with books that we were encouraged to take out and read during lunch hours, although they always had to be returned that same day. The boys didn't bother with it much, but the girls pounced on it. There were some particularly popular titles which, because I was never one for punching my way to the front of the queue, I never got my hands on - the several Mary Poppins books, Carbonel and Curly and the Princess, as I recall. I still have never read these to this day. But luckily for me, once the other girls had gone off with their preferred reading, I had all the REALLY good stuff left to choose from - Black Beauty, Robin Hood and Silver Brumby :-) And thank goodness for having learned the joy of books and live performances of Shakespeare long before O and A Levels came along as otherwise I'd probably have joined the ranks of the 'no time for reading' brigade too.
Looking forward to reading your Joan of Arc!

Pauline Chandler said...

A shelf in a glass fronted bookcase! That made me smile! No school libraries for either of us, then. Bad old days.

Sue Purkiss said...

Oh, I did like the Silver Brumby books! Thanks for reminding me... It's true that lots of people don't read books. But they still experience stories, don't they? You can't get away from them. They're on the internet, on TV, in films, in adverts, in newspapers, in conversation... but books are such a good place to get them, and children need to be encouraged to know this. Thanks, Pauline.

JO said...

I met a man once who said he'd tried a book once, and couldn't see the point of fiction. It took me about two minutes to decide I couldn't see the point of him!

My grandchildren all live in houses full of books - such fortunate children. But I feel for those who believe that words belong on a screen.

Nick Green said...

There's something about the stories that come through reading that can't be replicated by other media such as film or TV. Perhaps the closest thing is audiobooks, but even then you have the actor/reader between you and the text. The process of actually creating the story inside your own head - because you, the reader, do create it, the author just gives you the tools - is a kind of mental workout that I think is irreplaceable. It's about far more than just 'pretending something is happening when it isn't.' Rather, it's literally expanding your mind, letting you briefly become different people. It's like dreaming awake, and we know how important dreaming is (if not exactly why). You don't get that from newer media. Too much is done for you.

Bill Kirton said...

A sad little footnote with regard to children. My wife has done some language teaching in primary schools. When explaining German numbers (ein-und-zwanzig etc.) she told her classes 'You know, like four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie' and, in all of them got blank looks from all but a handful of kids. They're missing out on myths and stories shared by generations. They're fundamental to who we are.

Pauline Chandler said...

Thanks all. I couldn't agree more with all these comments, or despair with Bill about the loss of our common heritage. Nick hits it on the head, for me, though, that reading a book is a 'mental workout that's irreplaceable'' and 'it's literally expanding your mind.' I've felt that so often after reading a great book, that my mind had been on a journey and come home changed, more often than not, enlightened.

Mari Biella said...

My day job involves teaching in an Italian school, and I can confirm that Italian teenagers are often as reluctant to read as their British counterparts! I'm not sure that they are without stories - they're almost universally fond of films and TV series - but I can't help but feel that they're missing out by not reading more. Perhaps it will come with age? - though frankly, given the number of adults who don't read either, I'm not optimistic.

On the other hand, I suspect that it has always been much the same, and that those who read consistently and widely have always been something of a minority. If so, it's one minority I'm very happy to belong to...

Lee said...

Nick, do you actually have any evidence for your claims?

Susan Price said...

Lee, are you anti-fiction, then?

I don't know if any research has been done comparing the brains/ empathy scores of fiction-readers with non-fiction readers, so Nick's theory is anecdotal. I can't see that it's an unreasonable theory, though. I remember my mother making considerable effort to teach us to 'think how it feels for others' - by biting us when we bit someone else, sometimes. She also used stories to do the same: 'How do you think the little pig felt then?' So empathy is something that's taught, or at least, enhanced by teaching.

Of course people who don't read fiction aren't without empathy or understanding. Listen to a bunch of friends in a pub, talking about some problem at work, or in a family. They speculate on 'what was in their heads,' they retell the tale, they offer different points of view.

This is the origin of fiction,after all. But I think reading a well written book is akin to mainlining the stuff instead of tasting it.

Reading also teaches many other things. There have been scholarly books written on 'The Use and Abuse of Argument,' and one of the things you learn as a reader and writer is how to manipulate with words. - Why was that word/phrase used and not that one? What was the intention, and effect?

Reading, and re-reading - and writing - makes you much more aware of this - and resistant to it.

We live in a word awash with writing - newspapers, text books, blogs, web-pages, political leaflets, adverts - as well as the scripts for tv and films, which are 'disguised writing.' (In unguarded moments people forget that the actors are repeating lines written for them, and idly think they are overhearing spontaneous speech.)

People need to be aware that words are not neutral - and because something was spoken in a news-report (more disguised editorials) or printed in a newspaper - or a novel for that matter - it's not necessarily true or reliable.

I think people who have read widely have a better chance than most of taking what is good from written words, and dodging the traps.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

To open a whole other can of worms, I think some young boys are more into non-fiction than fiction but often get into fiction as they grow older. I think forcing the issue can be counter-productive. As long as they're reading something, somewhere, I don't think it matters too much. I find it much more worrying that I know a lot of aspiring writers who hardly read at all. I also know people who claim to want to write radio plays who don't even know how to tune in to Radio 4. But I think critical reading of non-fiction is vital. When I was working on an RLF Fellowship I encountered worrying numbers of media students who didn't know - and certainly hadn't been taught - to read in any way critically. But that doesn't necessarily have to involve fiction. I was at school in the 50s and 60s too - and we were incredibly well catered for with books and reading. This was at a small RC primary school in a very poor part of Leeds, followed by a bog standard RC comprehensive in Ayr when we moved to Scotland. I disliked school, and was often away through illness, but we didn't do at all badly for books. It was one of the few things that made it bearable. We were, though, a family that read at home. I was enrolled in our local library in Leeds from a very young age.

Pauline Chandler said...

I remember so clearly the impact of reading my first story, as opposed to the Pears Cyclopedia which was what we had at home. I was staying with my aunt and her neighbour gave me a book called 'Marigold at Godmother's House'. This book gave me a lifelong addiction to reading stories.

Pauline Chandler said...

Writers have to be readers. How can you learn your craft if you don't see how other people are using language?

Lydia Bennet said...

As so often I agree with Catherine. Reading is a lifelong pleasure to me, but I don't feel any need to proselytise. Others find their stories in other shapes - your artist friend who doesn't read fiction gets theirs through art perhaps. Children should be given the opportunity to read, a wide selection of books, but it doesn't help to make it something people 'should' do, nothing could be more off-putting to a teenager! Teens read their phones all day long so they get plenty of reading in! However, when doing book signings for my crime fiction, I've encountered a few folks in book shops who say they 'only read true crime' which for some reason makes me feel a bit uneasy! But then I've an overactive imagination, fuelled by reading too many books! :)

Lydia Bennet said...

sorry about all the screamers there, I must be overexcited.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Good point there - I think we underestimate how much kids read on their phones and tablets. It's still reading!

madwippitt said...

Reading does so much in so many ways but for me personally it, above all entertains while it gives my brain a workout and teaches me empathy and all those other things. It is a PLEASURE. If reading isn't a pleasure, then you don't read - and if you don't find it a pleasure then presumably you just haven't found the right book yet to give you a taste for it. Given the choice between chocolate and a good book, the book would win hands down everytime. And that says a lot, as those who know me will know ...

Pauline Chandler said...

I agree that we can't legislate, any more than we can make people love flowers or birds. I just think they, like my artist friend, are missing a trick. Fiction has a special part to play, a distinctive role in developing the rounded person. I know, I'm getting preachy. I'll shut up now!

Lydia Bennet said...

Just to add, listening to books recorded or on radio is also a way to enjoy stories, with similar engagement of the imagination - Radio 4 extra often has narrated books and stories. And recently, work by Catherine Czerkawska as well!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks for the mention Valerie! - it's a full scale dramatisation of The Mysteries of Udolpho. I did it years ago for the Classic Serial slot. It was meant to be a 'Gothic Season' but at the time, we (Udolpho and me) turned out to be 'it'. R4 was still a bit suspicious of horror, gothic or otherwise.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Ooops, hijacked Pauline's thread there. But it does represent another way in to stories of all kinds.