My mother recently confessed she looked forward to getting old so she could have more time to read. After bringing up nine children and a lifetime of underpaid care work (she still volunteers, looking after "old people" often younger than herself), that may seem scant reward. But it brought home to me just how imaginative literature can immeasurably increase the pleasure and quality of even materially impoverished life.
Socialists are unquestionably in favour of literacy. Like clean water, it forms the basic hygiene of intellectual freedom. But we rarely celebrate its pleasures. It's as if literacy is seen as worthy, functional, necessary for the reading of our leaflets and papers, but heaven (or Lenin) forbid that we should actually enjoy ourselves, lose ourselves in fantasy.
The BBC's Big Read promotion encouraged the nation to vote for their favourite novel, with Saturday night programmes where celebrities championed their own chosen title. There was, I thought, a surprising silence from socialists, both in lobbying for the inclusion of particular books, and commenting on the more general project. This is puzzling, almost as if we feel it's not our business.
The Big Read, as far as I can see, had largely beneficial consequences. It increased book sales and library-traffic. Philip Pullman, the only other living author beside J K Rowling in the Top 5 (and she didn't need it), sold hundreds of thousands of copies of His Dark Materials as a consequence.
It also increased discussion of books and prompted critical thought. I'm sure ours wasn't the only household where the list of the Top 100 was downloaded and passionately argued over. It certainly shamed me into a resolve to read some classic omissions, and to recommend my favourites to anyone who would listen. It introduced me to unjustly neglected authors, and reminded me of and prodded me to re-read books I first read 30-odd years ago.
These are all quiet, subtle satisfactions. Maybe therein lies the answer as to why socialists, in the main, seem to have ignored the Big Read. Nobody's going to run to the barricades after reading one of the winners. And maybe the spectre of Stalinist "socialist realism" haunts our reluctance to vigorously debate the merits of works of fiction.
Perhaps we are embarrassed at our own earlier, and previous generations', naivety. It now seems gauche or manipulative to talk in terms of "this book changed lives".
If so, then I think we have ceded too much to post-modern insouciance. To give up the ability to dream, because it's naff or uncool, is to surrender part of our humanity. Our imaginations need feeding and exercising as well as our bodies.
I don't know how much significance to attach to the fact that the BBC's Top 5, apart from Pride and Prejudice, were all fantasy/sci-fi other worlds. The slogan of the anti-capitalist movement, "Another World is Possible", seems to echo in these choices. Perhaps we need to have depictions of other worlds in order to imagine a world organised on different principles, where human freedom and development, rather than profit, determine how things run. We need to imagine worlds where we still face human dilemmas and choices but in which the rules are different.
Our rulers, in the main, do not rely on naked force but on ideological consensus, the common sense belief that things have to be as they are, that there's no point in trying to change things. The ability to step out of this mental framework, to dream different dreams, is one that we should choose to develop.
Belatedly, I'd like to invite readers to suggest their own "Well Re(a)d" lists. Do you agree with the Big Read's Top 21? Which books shaped your view of the world?
I'm not necessarily looking for worthy socialist classics. Some books fire you up to right an injustice, but some work on a more subconscious level, reminding you of what it is to be human, what at the end of the day we are fighting for.
If you had to recommend one (or five or 10) book(s) to read in the coming year what would it be?
Or if you think novels are an escapist waste of time, and we'd all be better off selling papers (really?) please put that case.
Reviewer: Gerry Byrne