This Reading Life: A Project for National Library Week (16-22 Nov 2015)

Curated by Fergal Gaynor

For each of the seven days of National Library Week 2015 the River-side blog will host responses from a group of seven contributors who were asked to nominate seven ‘formative’ books. The following text presents the ideas behind the project.

The end of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel (or Francois Truffaut’s film for that matter) Fahrenheit 451 depicts a utopian community, refugees from an anti-intellectual society in which books are systematically burnt. Each member of this community has ‘become’ a book themselves, by memorising the text – if you wish to read Middlemarch, for instance, you simply approach a particular individual and ask them to recite. Bradbury’s utopian image involves, however, a complete misconception of what it means to read, and the value of the classics. Utopian Citizen 61 may have the whole of The Iliad on the tip of their tongue, but the book still has to find a reader, just as it did in the dystopian alternative: the human ‘books’ wandering around their 60’s sylvan retreat mumbling their lines are simply acting as mnemo-technical recording devices, ways of retrieving texts, little different to a book-tape, kindle or bound stack of printed pages, for that matter. At most one could say that, like ascetics or performance artists, the utopianists have endured something for the sake of the books, and that this has some bare value. But it’s a bit beside the point.

The point is that good books need to be preserved and made available to each generation (and here libraries are essential), but they also need to be read (and here libraries also have a role), and that it is only in being read, attentively, at length, and with an openness to meanings of various kinds, that they ultimately exist as ‘books’. So, yes, if you want to see a book, look at a human being, one who has read the book and whose ‘inner life’ – intellectual formation, general understanding of the world, sensibility, etc. – has been influenced by that reading experience. Unless you’re a fabulous reader of faces you probably won’t see much – though in those celebrated photographic portraits of the older Beckett, Arendt, Sartre etc., even without the customary bookshelves in the background, it’s hard not to sense – alongside the lifetime of thought, and experience of affairs human and non-human – a lifetime of reading. You may not see much, in other words, but you are looking in the right place. So, a human being with some memory tricks or devices can ‘be a book’, in a limited sense; but a book, or rather, a whole series of books, read and interpreted, each expanding out to become entangled in others, can be, to a certain extent, a human being. This is clearly something more than a technical format for recording and transmitting texts.

To get at this ‘something more’ I’ve asked seven life-long readers to nominate seven books that were formative for them, that is, that played some part in their development and ongoing ‘life of the mind’. Not the best books, or the most essential (not a top ten, or ‘desert island’ list), but those books, good, bad or indifferent, that made a difference, inwardly, of some kind – the milestones on the road of their reading life. Because they are bound up with important experiences the formats, editions, cover art, illustrations, condition, etc. of these books tend to be significant, so I’ve tried to ascertain the original ‘material occasions’ of the reading experience, as it were, and to track down some images of the covers. If you want to see a book, or at least the promise of a book, it’s worth looking at its cover. Some explanation of the choices seemed called for, so the remembered texts have now generated further texts – reminiscences, interpretations, and even new pieces of writing, responding imitatively to their predecessors. Since libraries more often than not play a major part in this process I have also asked the contributors briefly to recall a library that has played its part, or made some long-lasting impression.

The contributors have all been writers of some kind or other at some stage in their lives, but that tends to happen if you are already a reader. I’ve included web-links after their names, should anyone wish to find out more about them and their work.


Raymond Deane (composer and novelist)

Sheila Mannix (writer and artist)

Tom Raworth (poet and artist)

Paul Tiernan (singer-songwriter)

Trevor Joyce (poet)

Judy Kravis (writer and publisher)

and myself, Fergal Gaynor (writer, editor and librarian)

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