Sunday, May 25, 2014


I had a surprise at the age of about five. It was my turn to read with a teacher, one who was covering for my regular class teacher, and I took up my book and sat with her. I started to read from the beginning of the first book I had been given. After a few seconds she asked If this was as far as I had got. I explained that I was getting better and faster and sometimes I reached further than before but she stopped me.

'You mean you start from the beginning each time?'

Turns out nobody had introduced me to the concept of the bookmark and I thought you had to read from page 1 every session. I picked up from then on and read at the appropriate speed for my age pretty soon.

Maybe two years later I was introduced to the idea of the public library. There were few books in my home. Few that looked attractive at any rate. But my Dad took out three books a fortnight from Selly Oak Library and he signed me up. I remember their smell. At first I only took one book out at a time, terrified of being half-way through and having to take it back. But once renewals had been explained, all was well.

I think Jennings, Billy Bunter and Biggles were probably my favourites.

For a while I read my books in my bedroom last thing at night and before getting up at the weekend. Sometimes I crawled out of bed and lay in front of the disappointing electric fire, an eiderdown pulled over me. We lived in a big, draughty old house.

I don't know when it stopped. It certainly slowed down. I recall reading when off sick but finding other things to do that were more fun the rest of the time. Probably football related.

I carried on with Alastair McLeans, Ian Fleming's Bond series and various other thrillers but there was often a time when I didn't have a book on the go from aged 14-20. It was odd. I liked books but didn't read them very often.

O Level English literature pretty much devastated me with Richard Church's 'Over the Bridge' seeing me off into the dull depths of a grade 8.

My twenties changed things. I met, and married, a voracious reader. But a pre-college training course set me to read Shirley and it was a step too far. I wrote an essay on it without reading it. However, when I went back to College as a mature student I found novels a good balance to theology. Robert M. Pirsig's 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' fascinated me and I read it in the college library when I should have either been reading for an essay or at home helping with two small children.

After ordination I specifically asked a new friend about improving my reading - I had attempted self-help with a P.D. James. Heather, the friend, lent me some stuff she and her husband had enjoyed and Penelope Lively was one of the authors I discovered.

I began to read book reviews in papers and, with a little money available, to enjoy purchasing books to read and keep (or lend). Aware that an English teacher had once challenged me on my current reading and I couldn't remember anything (interrogative teachers have often made my mind go blank) I began keeping a record of my reading in a journal from about 1987. I also, influenced by some College colleagues, swapped my Daily Mail for the Times.

Some of my book shopping was influenced by covers. I loved the simplicity of the design of Faber and Faber paperbacks and found Peter Carey's 'Illywhacker' and Kazuo Ishiguro's 'An Artist of the Floating World' this way.

What am I saying to our beloved Secretary of State for Education? I think my reading set-backs were all in the classroom and my progress when I was in charge of my own destiny. Victorian novels may well be massive improving tomes but Harry Potters have done more for literacy in this country. As have Fifty Shades and Dan Brownes for adults. I don't think Michael Gove, an English graduate I believe, has the first idea what it is like not to be Michael Gove.

I love now having an eclectic reading habit. I am currently enjoying Bill Bryson's '1927'. My last five books read for pleasure were:

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson
Harvest - Jim Crace
The Last Juror - John Grisham
Politically Correct Bedtime Stories - James Finn Garner
Who I Am - Pete Townsend

I like reading, read well, fast enough and like talking about books. Because I can read I thank a teacher, maybe one of my parents too, but my memory of reading is that it was helped by freedom of choice and hindered by syllabuses.

My old friend John Dexter, a science teacher, has written an interesting blog on the subject of literacy. I commend his work.


Helen Hickman said...

Steve, you are so right! I love reading but couldn't stand reading in school, having to stop every 2 seconds to dissect what we'd just read. It took all the enjoyment out of reading for me. For light relief try'Gironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy' by Tim Moore. Hilariously entertaining and well written. I can't put it down.

Steve Tilley said...

Thanks Helen.