As Erica Wagner said in yesterday's Times, I don't like disagreeing with Kate Atkinson, who is one of my favourite authors and a writer whose intelligence I respect, but when she says as she did in that selfsame publication that reading is a passive activity I simply have to take issue. The actual quote, taken from a piece marking the move of Jackson Brodie to the television screen this evening was this,
People like to think that there’s some synergy between reading and writing but there isn’t. Writing is a very active act and reading is passive and that’s seen as a negative thing: people don’t want to be seen to be passive. They want to feel engaged and involved in the process but they’re not. They’re reading something that would exist even if the reader didn’t.
Don't worry, I'm not going to get into the whole reader-response question here. I know that the book sitting by my side at the moment would still exist even if I didn't. But, even without wandering into the realms of literary theory, I'm afraid I think she is just plain wrong. Whatever else reading is it isn't passive. Or if it is then it has stopped being a worthwhile occupation because all you are doing is letting the words pass through your mind without engaging with them in any way and you might just as well fill the space up with so much cotton wool.
Any child in the process of learning how to read will tell you that reading is damned hard work. The fact that so many of us manage to master the art to the point where we no longer notice that fact is a tribute to a lot more hard work put in by teachers of one sort or another all over the world. But once you've reached that point and you don't notice the work you're putting in any more what you're doing is still not passive; what is more it is perfectly possible for it to be active in a different way every single time you pick a book up.
This past week I've read four books each of which has asked me to engage actively with it in an entirely different way. One has an extremely complex plot located in a slightly off kilter world which demands that I follow every twist and turn in an unfamiliar setting without letting a single ball drop if I want to have a hope of understanding how the final denouement fits logically with what has gone before.
A second has engaged me in an emotional manner that has demanded that I empathise with characters I might not normally respond to and come to some understanding of why they have behaved as they have and why I might possibly be able to follow their reasoning if not ever applaud their choices.
The third and fourth are both books where I have been struck immediately by the fact that the writers are women of tremendous intelligence and I have struggled, as I read their novels, to keep up with the ideas that their minds have woven into extremely readable books. But even here what I have been working at has been different. In one of these it has been the ideas themselves that have kept me on my toes, the writers that this author has assumed I would know and the way in which their concepts have fed into the story she is telling. In the other is has been the style that has had me thinking, deceptively simply and yet expressed in language so distilled that unpacking all the layers of meaning has been a tremendous challenge. Working out how she has managed it would be another task in itself.
So, I'm afraid I have to disagree with Kate Atkinson. For me the very essence of the pleasure that is reading is the fact that it isn't passive, that I have to work at it if I want to get anything out of it. And the day it becomes a passive, time filling activity is the day I will burn my library cards and go out and shot myself.