About ten days ago I experienced a heavy summer cold virus. The concoction of decongestant and painful blocked sinuses kept me awake at night. Unable to sleep I turned to a book, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante; the first of The Neapolitan Saga. As author Joanna Briggs puts it “The usual distance between fiction and life collapses when you read Ferrante.” Indeed, my cold dissipated with each chapter and I had no concern for sleep – for I was lost in a 1950s Naples full of summer heat and hanging laundry, shoe-makers daughters and family feuds. I stopped blowing my nose and became alert with recognition and empathy for the friendship of two little Italian girls beginning to explore their sense of self.
I like many others am now a fully signed up member of The Cult of Ferrante and have no shame in saying I’ve become an evangelical fan. Such is my extolling of the virtues of her writing and The Neapolitan Saga that I already have an extensive waiting list for my own copy of the first book. And yes, I have had an intense conversation with a therapist about whether I’m a Lila or an Elena and which female friends from childhood represent either my Lila or my Elena.
If you are not already switched on to Ferrante you should know she was named as one of Time’s most influential people of 2016 and the final book in The Neapolitan Saga The Story of the Lost Child has been nominated for a Booker Prize. Yet the media are not quite sure of Ferrante’s exact identity. Mysterious Ferrante refuses to meet face to face or make public appearances. She gives only one interview per country she publishes in and this is via email. If you’re interested is piqued then there is a great two piece article on Ferrante including an email Q&A in Vanity Fair.
Now I feel sad. You know that feeling of bereavement when you finish a great book: a little lost, slightly alone and missing in your head the characters the particular world of the book? Well, like everyone else who loves reading my main problem now is what to read next?
But the book also got me thinking about the special place in my heart for ye olde analog paper books and the sensation great reads like Ferrante evoke in the psyche of book lovers. Like a vinyl junkie who carries their record bag about with them, I always have paperbacks about my home and person. Call me quaint I don’t care…you’ll never catch me with a Kindle. I state this emphatically, categorically and forever. I don’t care how light they are or how much space they save – give me a paperback any day over a Kindle.
I understand reading is a privilege and I’m very lucky. My late mother taught me phonics before I got to Primary school and then the teachers polished this with a ‘whole language approach’ that encouraged a five year old me to think about the framing of the words and what characters in stories might be thinking or feeling and then asked me to guess difficult words through contextualization until I could recognise those words by sight. I was reading whole books by myself before I turned six. I gather this method is a bit out of fashion these days and was also sad to read recently that only 30% of children aged 7-14 years are avid readers. However there is a study that claims children who read a lot grow up to be high earning adults.
“Perhaps books matter because they encourage children to read more and reading can have positive effects on school performance,” researchers said. “Alternatively, a home filled with books indicates advantageous socio-economic conditions.”
Me – I’m not so sure about the higher income bit, but I am nostalgic for The Worst Witch, The Ramona Books and everything ever by Judy Blume from my childhood. I wish all children growing up could have their equivalences of these great stories. Similarly, I shall not forget the thrill of passing around and devouring illicit dog-eared Danielle Steel and Jilly Cooper in the form room at secondary school, before I moved on to the more note worthy classics and set canonical texts of A-level English Lit and long-listed prize nominees.
There has been quite a lot of academic research done on reading, although it tends to focus on how people learn, semantics and so on and the therapeutic benefits of reading, less so on why certain people read more than others and the psychology of book lovers. Are readers a special breed? Do we have a certain gene? I don’t know, but my feeling is we are a more empathetic bunch. I also don’t think the cliché that book lovers tend to be shy introverted types is necessarily true. Sometimes books can be a great way of connecting to others and public topics of conversation. What do you think?
Feature image by Gaelle Marcel