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On books and reading

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Tom’s blog on reading got me thinking about my own interest in and experiences of books. I, too, am a bibliophile – books feature constantly in my life, both professionally and outside of work. Indeed, as I write this very piece, I can't fail to notice, as I intermittently look up from the keyboard, the hectic yet reassuring presence of the books on the shelves that surround me (there is little logic in the way I store them) . I confess that I haven't read them all, and have only read parts of others, but these books, some of which have been with me since my undergraduate days another life ago, grace what is an otherwise uninspiringly, non-descript office.

I’m lecturer in ‘Sociolinguistics’ – quite a grand sounding term – that simply means the study of language and society. I’m interested in how people use language in various social settings, such as medicine, law, business, education. My main interest is in the domain of healthcare, in particular how people make sense of illness through the stories they tell about themselves.

Recently I’ve been working on a journal article (nothing to do with any of the themes mentioned above) which has involved a great deal of background reading. I normally enjoy this part of my research the most – indeed I usually try to prolong it for as long as possible so that I can put off, indefinitely, doing any actual writing – the hard work. But progress has been slow. In this insufferable heat, the cognitive effort of reading reams of closely argued academic prose is proving to be a superhuman feat (it’s all I can do at the moment simply to open a book, let alone actively engage with all its intricate lines of argument).

Yet although my appetite for reading has withered chronically, I’m still, curiously, able to read other kinds of text, to wit, narrative literature. I’m half way through a novel called Stoner, written by the American novelist John Williams. It’s an (unjustly) forgotten classic, but has been recently reissued by Vintage. The story concerns an assistant professor, William Stoner, who teaches English at the University of Missouri. Stoner is an unremarkable protagonist: his colleagues hold him in no particular esteem and nothing truly extraordinary happens to him throughout the course of the novel. Yet for all its understatedness, Stoner is an absorbing and beautiful story to which I’ve been constantly turning when I should be reading other things.    

Why is it that narrative holds me so, while, presently at least, I’m struggling to get to grips with other kinds of text? I believe, along with many other researchers, that human beings are hardwired for narrative, that stories are, at the risk of sounding homiletic, no less essential to us than food and water. We are, in the words of Jonathan Gottschall, ‘storytelling animals’ and simply can’t do without narrative.

No matter how short or seemingly trivial, think of the last time you told a story. I’ll wager you (a complete, gilt-edged set of Dickens) that you’ve told several over the last few days. (I’ve told several over the last few paragraphs.)  

In my next blog, the second instalment of my thoughts on books and reading, I want to share with you some new and exciting insights into how narrative can serve as an intervention for people living with dementia. Although research is still at an early stage, studies suggests that when stories and poems are read aloud to and shared with others, such text are able to help people with dementia not only express themselves, but to ignite new acts of thought and make connections with others.


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