Good afternoon. I’d like to express my gratitude to Erica Jarnes [at English PEN] for giving me this opportunity to speak today, and to you all for listening. In the next half hour, I’ll touch on why I read, the different ways of reading, and how exactly books leave legacies inside us – and whether that’s an easy thing to qualify or not. I’m not much interested in reading as an elevation of status, or books as a fetish – reading the It book, the ‘best’ book, the ‘worst’. This is about the experiential consequences on one person of reading different worlds, times, voices, places, people and scenes bodily out of reach, but metaphysically always within grasp. I won’t be speaking necessarily of my favourite novels, rather the ones which have shaped me as their reader.
I’d like to say quickly that I don’t agree with the idea that reading certain books equals a moral worth. Reading widely, with an open and questioning mind, is obviously likely to be beneficial in many ways. Reading may stimulate an independent and critical mind – not a unique or individualistic one, but a dynamic one; flexible, empathetic, imaginative. But after all, any psychopath can read Shakespeare. I don’t read to be good, to be better. I read because literature should be a source of pleasure – whatever that means to the individual – but definitely not because it’s a moral obligation.
The idea of reading as a moral imperative is a bit like an ideology; it’s static and simplistic. Whereas reading itself gives access to an array of different and ironically conflicting voices. Therefore books are good only insofar as they contain the possibility for dialogue, argument, polyphony, etc., within themselves or with each other. Reading as a moral good implies a kind of closure, but reading itself is at its best the opposite of that. Any idea or book that directs people to a single view of things is in my opinion, almost certainly worthless, both morally and intellectually.
I also read in different ways; there is great pleasure to be had in losing yourself completely in a story, and also great pleasure to be had in analysing it, at a remove. I read to escape, to inform myself, to laugh, to cry, to feel fear, to see myself, reconfigured in the lives of others. Each writer I have admired in my time as a reader has encouraged – through accident or design – different ways of being read, thereby turning me into a multiplicity of selves. Some have laid out a puzzle for me to solve, others have taken the weight off my shoulders and borne me along, assuming responsibility for everything. Some have consciously stimulated thought, and others have triggered unconscious feeling.
All good books take you elsewhere, in one way or another.
The only time I haven’t enjoyed reading was during my English literature degree at Oxford. I suppose it was the mode of reading that had turned me off, not the texts themselves. I remember applying to another university, for their combined degree of Creative Writing and English. Back in those days, you had to declare on your UCAS form which other universities you were applying to. This tutor saw the word Oxford and went ballistic. He threw down my poems that I’d submitted as part of the application process, and said, ‘You know you’re a poet, don’t you?’ I was 17, embarrassed and delighted. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I see you’ve applied to Oxford. Will you go if they offer you a place?’ I foolishly said it was likely, given the work that was involved trying to get in in the first place, and his eyelids hooded. He sighed. ‘They’ll kill your creativity, you know.’ Naively, I thought his was just a case of sour grapes, but I came to realise it was more complicated than that. I think he was showing genuine concern.
Four years later, I finished my finals in English and Spanish literature at the Oxford Examination Halls, and went back to my room in college. I was exhausted. All I’d done for months was read – forensically, analytically, pulling apart somebody else’s creativity to make myself look clever. I lay on my bed, opened Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and devoured it in two hours, thrilled to read a thriller so preposterous, addictive – and subversive, given the intellectual city I was lying in. For those two hours, it was wonderful to immerse myself, to switch off my critical faculties, to respond emotionally and unthinkingly to a piece of writing. But I see how reading had become an uncomfortable, polarised experience. I was either thinking too much, or not at all.
I remembered that grumpy university professor, and reflected how indeed my joy had been leached from reading, how all the literature had been codified and valorized into an inferred hierarchy of worthiness and quality and relevance. I don’t think it was Oxford per se – it would probably have happened at any university. My childish love of literature had turned into a deconstruction of poetry and prose. I had mined writers’ biographies, a cod-psychologist at twenty years old, thinking literature was currency, to be spent in the marketplace to come. And as for my own writing, I hadn’t written a word.
Recently, I watched a documentary on the life of Ted Hughes. Hughes quickly suffered the stultifying analysis of literature in his Cambridge college, and moved from studying English to Anthropology. It is suggested that this is all tied in to his view of himself as a poet – a creator rather than a critic. He and I have nothing in common, save our shared birth day in August, for whereas he ploughed his own furrow, I kept on with the taxonomy of what should perhaps never have been taxonomised, conducted as it was by me in a reductive and point-scoring way.
Reading The Da Vinci Code was my own minor rebellion, and I really enjoyed it. During my time as a published author, I have witnessed the game of status played by the self-appointed gatekeepers of literature. Pleased with their own towering intellect, or taste-making powers, they will position themselves around a book, in order to lift it up or push it down. If a book proves popular, invariably they will try and insist to others on its shortcomings. If a book is not well known, they will do their damndest to make sure everybody knows they are one of the few who has read it, not necessarily to share it with others, but to make themselves look unique.
Of course it’s important to raise awareness and ensure there is a wide diet of literature to feast on, but I feel a lot of this cheerleading is not altruistic; it’s about looking clever, the undergrad’s curse yet again. We are no longer allowed just to say, ‘I loved this book.’ We have to give our account of why we did, thereby potentially killing the experience for the reader we are trying to recruit.
I know as a writer I am very sensitive to all this, and so perhaps my views are coloured, but I have seen the book become a product, a status symbol, a weapon. It moves away from the artist’s original intention – a thing of pleasure, a polemic, a satire, a work of art. I’d like to say that a book stays the same all the while, but such is the pernicious effect of commentary, review, censure and praise, its very nature tends to transmogrify, even though its words stay the same.
We need only think of the mutating biographies of deceased writers – those ignored in their life, to be lionized in death – or those celebrated whilst living, to be forgotten in the grave – to know that entire oeuvres can shapeshift before our eyes. Critics try to be objective – but they are unavoidably of their time, their era, of themselves, and perhaps the need to establish their own words is stronger than any willing, passive abandonment to those they analyse.
So, am I saying that the only thing someone can do is not listen to anyone else, and read the thing for themselves?
Well, partly yes, but I do think we should be conscientious, thoughtful, critical readers, having dialogues – and I am not advocating the feeling reader over the thinking one. But I’m not doing the opposite either, and it’s a tired dichotomy, at any rate. I’m saying we can be both kinds of reader. Moreover, what we think and what we feel can be argued to be indistinguishable notions; it’s only a (mainly gendered) argument which has divided them for so long. The feeling reader has often been thought to be more stupid than the thinking. But why? Just because you think something, doesn’t make it right.
There is always a relationship in play between the writer and the reader who receives her work. The fact is, it’s unavoidably played out in absentia, and as a result can give too much weight to one participant over the other. As a writer, I sometimes want to say, ‘It will never be yours, you didn’t write it. Your job is to read it, and take pleasure in it – or not, as you will.’ As a reader, ‘I want to say, yes, you wrote it – but it’s out of you, that bit’s done now. You’ve offered it into the public sphere. Now it’s my part of the deal. I am going to rebuild it in my own image.’ (And I must admit, as a writer, I can feel detached from the work once it is out of me – and feel odd being called upon to define something which is ultimately designed to be a plural experience.)
I would be lying if I said that this relationship is ever truly resolved. Else, how would we ever justify all those English literature degrees?
Picasso said he spent his adult life trying to remember how he drew as a child. This year I went to his first home in Malaga, south Spain, and saw a sketch of a shipwreck he had drawn, aged seven. It was extraordinary; his line ignorant of any pratfalls, genius another word for innocent confidence. And since my literature degree, 11 years ago, I try to remember how I read as a child; with irreverence, and an open-mind.
So what are these great books that set my reading life upon the water, and how well do I truly remember them? I think it’s fair to admit that most of us forget the majority of what we have read, however much we might protest to the contrary. The stories I was told as a toddler, those I went on to read alone – as a girl, a teenager, a student, an adult woman – have probably had a more subliminal effect on my psyche that I haven’t really noticed in the day to day living of life.
When Erica asked me to think of the books that have shaped my life, I decided not to stand in front of my bookshelves, either at my own flat or in my parents’ house. The ones I talked about had to be the ones that were there, ready in my mind, pulled out as easily as a large crab from a small fishing bucket. They are not massively unusual titles, but they definitely shaped me.
The first that sprang to mind was Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers. This book was a revelation to me, because I had seen and loved the film very much. But the book was darker, much darker. My reading of it coincided with my commencement at secondary school in 1993. First published in 1934, Mary Poppins was so much more sinister, barbed and mature than the film, and its surprising nature has always stuck with me. I felt rather grown-up reading it, as if I had accessed the original source of material before it was primed and candied for a wider audience. I felt I was in on a bit of a secret. It was my first introduction to the subtler portrayals of powerful, yet difficult woman in fiction. For what else is Poppins but a sophisticated witch, wandered from the wood?
More recently, I have read about P.L. Travers’s wrangles with the disingenuous Walt Disney, her unremitting iron grip on the world of the book nearly driving the man to distraction. And I thought of my 11-year-old self, and the surprise when I remembered Julie Andrews and failed to recognize her in this more frightening woman on the page. Why had they changed her character so much, I wondered? Did they think we children couldn’t take it?
Another book at this transitional time between true childhood and adolescence, was A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley, published in 1939. (I was nothing if not a modern reader, clearly.) Here, the interstices of my interests met perfectly. It centred on a young girl, Penelope, sent to Derbyshire to stay with relations. She travels back in time to the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, and falls in with the plot to save Mary, Queen of Scots. It is a sensory, wistful book, full of scents of herb and lavender, the textures of velvet and linen, a hidden miniature, time travel, love and double identities. As a fan of all things past, I would be taken to castles and stately homes, hanging back as the tourists moved on, desperate to see a ghost, to open a cupboard and step back into a time of farthingales and horses’ hooves. This book was my perfect grail.
I kept it on loan for over a year, re-reading it with a longing to be in those pages far stronger than any desire to actually live my own life. And I am glad that I discovered only years later that Alison Uttley herself was deemed to be an unpleasant, difficult woman – much like P.L. Travers. Why is it that these creative women are always reported as being so unpleasant, or seem to have such challenging lives and personalities, I wonder? I read that Uttley hated children; true or not, I’m glad I didn’t know that at the age of 11. It’s why I am cautious about the casual drawing-in of a writer’s biography to an analysis of their works. It can ruin the initial impulse to read them, and cloud the experience of reading a book just for the book’s sake. Again, this doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario – the text and nothing else versus the writer’s real life infusing every last fictional sentence. I’m just saying we should be wary of anything we read that isn’t the writing itself.
The third in my trio of pre-adolescence was The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively, published in 1973. Another story of the past coming to meet the present, this time in the form of a poltergeist apothecary who wreaks havoc on a contemporary village. I am nothing if not consistent; I much admire Lively’s adult writings too, and Moon Tiger is one of my favourite novels. Certainly the Uttley and the Lively book have themes in common – a strong sense of place and time, a domestic setting, a deft historical touch, a nostalgic, bittersweet yearning for that which has already travelled out of reach.
The two first ‘grown up’ books I read were Jane Eyre and Rebecca. Hardly original, but who cares – they are gothic, frightening, powerful masterpieces. And I was 12 years old, perfectly on the cusp of womanhood, and dangerously impressionable. If I squint my eye, I can still see Mrs Danvers, waiting for me in the dark of the staircase, and I can summon the psychic horror and nightmarish shadows of Jane’s night in the red room, the weediness of her body in opposition to the grotesque John Reed. And ever since, I have thought Pilot was the best name anyone could give a dog.
They often say that these sort of novels are the ones best read young. Do we wear some form of fully permeable membrane at this age, where novels like this stay with you for life? Perhaps it’s like learning a foreign language or a musical instrument. The younger brain is a sponge, capacious and limitless. I read Wuthering Heights as a full-blown adult, and I couldn’t be getting on with it with the same reckless acceptance and abandon with which I scooped up Jane Eyre – its wildness and mania had been found in too many other books which by now preceded it in my reading life. I know people for whom the case is reversed, who read Wuthering Heights when young. They can’t love Jane at all, but have all the time in the world for Cathy, which puts some credence to the theory about the retention and loyalty of younger minds.
And with regards to Jane Eyre, for me this is a good case of where critical re-readings only serve to enrich the initial reading experience. I read it for the first few times as a monumental story of anti-heroes and unlikely heroines, love, punishment and malformed restitution, but as I have grown more interested in feminist re-readings of Bertha in the attic, or colonial shadows cast on Rochester’s behaviour out of England, the lights shine through Jane Eyre in new and sparkling ways. Because it is a masterpiece, it can be moved hither and thither. However much I will it this way or that, it remains purely what it is. And as a side note – I have felt the only fictional commentary on Jane Eyre of any equal value is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which is the best and rarest kind of critical augmentation a reader, who may have been left wanting to know more of Brontë’s characters as her final chapter closes, can enjoy. With Rhys, a genius writer can do what a critic can’t.
As to Rebecca – perhaps it falls more on the sensationalist side of things, being written during a more modern time. I looked at it again recently, and could hardly bear it – how weak and odd the second Mrs de Winter is, and how bullying and annihilating Max de Winter. As you age, and re-read, it is the testament of a great book that you find yourself reading the same text as if it was a different story, and yet both your readings can coexist.
Mrs Danvers was the original inspiration for the character of Marin in my own novel, The Miniaturist. I figured that if Marin, like Mrs Danvers, was so cold, obstructive and aggressive – then there would have to be reasons behind that. Warmth, love and support – they all had to be possible characteristics too. The first chapter of my novel sees the young heroine, Nella, enter an imposing house only to be met by an imperious, evasive older woman who seeks to outwit her. But perhaps because I am more of a romantic, I let my Mrs Danvers melt and show her other side.
There were two very different books that I read aged 17, before I left school and went into the world. The first was Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. This book really unsettled me; in fact it remains, for its subtlety and subject matter, one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. It was my first Atwood novel, a foray into the adult world of obsessive memory, how one small event in your past can overwhelm your life years later – and how no one’s life is ever quite what it seems – even to the person living it. I would venture to say that it was the most sophisticated novel I’d read. Not that other books I’d enjoyed didn’t show characters with believable mental states and behaviours – but what Atwood was doing was far more insidious and stealthy than I was used to, using imagery and metaphor to reinforce the thematic schemes of the narrator’s experience. At 17, you’re at that age where you believe childhood experiences will be left behind; this book drew me up short and made me think about my own actions, my friendships – how these might echo on – and how the adults I knew might not just be two-dimensional playing pieces in my triumphant game of life.
And the other that stuck with me was The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. Funnily enough, both these books deal with an older, supposedly wiser narrator, considering the tatters of their present life, and wondering how on earth they got themselves into this state, using the novel’s unfolding plot as a retrospective foray into the missteps they took. The lure of The Go-Between remains strong for me, and on re-reading I admire it with exactly the same passion as I did the first time round. Like Cat’s Eye, it abounds in symbolism, and childhood treasures wrenched into the present to throw our narrator, and subsequently their audience, into a state of acute discomfort.
It’s a doom-laden book, an inexorable countdown to disaster, exquisitely plotted, and painful to bear. It is drenched in nostalgia, it is two parallel stories in one, although the events stay the same. It takes great writing skill to demonstrate an unreliable witness cushioned by a second unreliable witness – the 13-year-old boy and the old man he became – all the while creating a world we entirely believe in. Hartley does it in a masterpiece.
So, those are the novels that feel carved into my DNA. And a funny thing happened to me, as I wrote this and looked back at the titles I have mentioned, for every single one of them has left their imprint in my own novels, however invisible their traces are to anyone but me. I thought I was speaking as a reader, but it appears I am speaking as a writer too. This voyage I was asked to take back in time has been an interesting exercise in not just the history of my reading habits, but into the psychological effect of these books upon my own writing.
Echoes of women in houses and claustrophobia in Jane Eyre and Rebecca sound out in The Miniaturist, and the blueprints of ‘difficult’ yet magical women, first brought to my attention in the original incarnation of Mary Poppins, are to be found in my own characters of Marin Brandt and the miniaturist herself. But I see now, that I can go further back than that, to my childhood books of time-travel, sensory overloads of sound and sight and taste, marzipan and sugar, which has been commented heavily upon with regards to my own book. I was reading about hidden miniatures 21 years before The Miniaturist was published. If that’s not a legacy of life of reading, I don’t know what is.
My next novel, The Muse is, amongst other things, a book about creativity, belonging, false identities, the highs and lows of female friendship, and a rueful older narrator. Perhaps it can find its origins in the painter’s life delineated in Atwood’s Cat’s Eye; perhaps it echoes the pull of nostalgia as expressed through the musings of an older voice, to be found in The Go-Between. Moreover, the thematic implications of Rochester’s wife, Bertha Mason, in the attic, which made such an impression upon me, have arguably been placed centre-stage in The Muse, where my main character is Trinidadian, and her life in sixties London, post-independence from Britain, becomes a key focus. I’m not saying my book is having a direct conversation with any of these other books – it’s far more abstract than that, a legacy of reading over decades that cannot be quantified or even qualified, but it can surely be discussed in terms of a legacy of impressions.
This experience of looking back on the books that formed me then made me wonder: have I always read as a potential writer? I have always written, ever since I was little. But I think my success lay in the fact that I read more as a reader, in the moment, with no eye on the future at all. And now, as a published writer, I am desperate to read yet again as a reader only, firstly because I secretly hope the genius of other people’s books will rub off on me again, their ideas flourishing in another ten or twenty years’ time, reconfigured in my own fiction. And secondly, because I still want to escape, to be pushed under, propelled only by the pleasure of the story without analysing how the story was written.
More recently, I have returned to poetry to put me back in the child-like, fugue state. Poetry has always been a staple for me, particularly the work of Lorca – but I haven’t even touched on it here. While researching for my second novel, I read a lot about the Caribbean experience post-war in Britain, and also the whole history of Britain’s involvement in the West Indies from the time the first English colonised those parts of the world, turning them into sites of slavery, brutality and violence for centuries to come, other islands becoming the source of the British Isles’ enormous industrial wealth, a legacy which lives on today. And aside from reading non-fiction history, I also read the work of Caribbean poets – and uncovered some of the most exciting voices and reflections on, among many subjects, the legacy of colonialism. Tanya Shirley, Christian Campbell, Kei Miller, take me somewhere more powerfully and directly than a European writer would, writing about those islands with a tourist’s gaze.
And as I’m talking about writers beyond these shores, I’ll mention a couple of books which have really moved me recently, for different reasons. Long before Marlon James won the 2015 Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, my literary agent asked me if I’d ever read his first novel, The Book of Night Women. ‘It’s my favourite book,’ she said, which is high praise coming from a woman who can read a novel in three hours, and has read most books going. James is a Jamaican writer, who, it transpires, tried 11 times to get The Book of Night Women published, without success.
I finally got round to it, and I can honestly say I have never read anything like it. It is written in the vernacular of a Jamaican house-slave, starting in 1785, who both witnesses and is complicit in a society of systematic violence in her daily fight for survival on a cane plantation. Not only did it give me a renewed understanding of how fiction can reposition those histories which have been set in stone by the generations of one dominant voice, but it also just took me under again, because it’s a great story. I thoroughly recommend it.
And one other book that sprang up from my heart more than my head when I was writing this, is All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. You probably know it, but it has that spirit of irreverence I was talking about earlier. It deals with difficult issues – namely clinical depression, suicide, and the effects they have on both sufferers and those who love them. But it’s a funny book, one of the funniest I’ve ever read. I don’t laugh out loud at books very often, but I did with this one. Toews, who lost her own sister and father to suicide, knows her topic, and I suppose this affords her a certain elasticity in her treatment of it, seeing as she has probably traversed all its corners so we don’t have to. But it’s not a biography, it’s a story, honestly and beautifully written. It is a book, like Marlon James’s, that I couldn’t stop reading.
As I said earlier, there are so many books I haven’t mentioned, and I have tried to avert my eyes as I walked past my bookshelves, the spines looking at me reproachfully. But as I said – this was written in the spirit of spontaneity, the reader I am right now. And through it, I have been re-confirmed in my belief that the books we read help make us who we are, an on-going, lifelong work-in-progress, shifting constantly, making mistakes, false starts, leaping forward. We are made up of stories; we are a story we tell ourselves and others. I hadn’t thought for a long time before now about the power of literature – again, not as a moral thing, but a stranger thing, a sly, silent thing that we don’t notice as we’re growing up, or living, or ageing. We read to make ourselves, and whether we believe that or not, is probably also literature’s fault.
Find out more about Jessie Burton and her latest projects.
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