Quotation of the month – Matt Haig on reading to stay alive

Reasons to Stay Alive came along at the perfect moment for me. Not only did it move me towards a new stage of recovery from my depression, it did so in a language that felt completely personal to me. For Haig, reading was a vital part of his recovery, and as such his book is liberally sprinkled with quotations from the literary greats. Emily Dickinson seems to be a particular favourite, and the fact that the words “hope is the thing with feathers” pop so frequently into my head when I’m in need of an emotional boost is entirely thanks to Haig. To read a book that was not only about hope in the midst of the darkness of depression, but also about the power of words and reading, made me feel that Haig had tailored this book just for me. And I know I’m not alone in feeling that.

Matt Haig Reasons to Stay Alive
Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive

“‘The object of art is to give life a shape,’ said Shakespeare. And my life – and my mess of a mind – needed shape. I had ‘lost the plot’. There was no linear narrative of me. There was just mess and chaos. So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered. Films. TV dramas. And most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest. And books themselves seemed to me to reflect this idea. Which is why the plot of every book ever can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something’. One cliché attached to bookish people is that they are lonely, but for me books were my way out of being lonely. If you are the type of person who thinks too much about stuff then there is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by a load of people on a different wavelength. In my deepest state of depression, I had felt stuck. I felt trapped in quicksand (as a kid that had been my most common nightmare). Books were about movement. They were about quests and journeys. Beginnings and middles and ends, even if not in that order. They were about new chapters. And leaving old ones behind. And because it was only a few months before that I had lost the point of words, and stories, and even language, I was determined never to feel like that again. I fed and I fed and I fed. I used to sit with the bedside lamp on, reading for about two hours after Andrea had gone to sleep, until my eyes were dry and sore, always seeking and never quite finding, but with that feeling of being tantalisingly close.” – Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive (Canongate Books, 2015), p.136.


Quotation of the month – John Wilkins on the vice of liberally quoting

I’m aware there is a certain irony in choosing as my quotation of the week a quotation that warns against quoting. But I think there is sufficient substance in Wilkins’ advice to justify sharing it here. I came across this in a notebook, clearly written before I started systematically writing exactly where I was quoting from. As such I have no idea where I found this quotation, but I’m sure it resonated with me as a scholar of English literature trying not to rely too heavily in my essays on the thoughts and ideas of others. I haven’t read all of Wilkins’ Ecclesiastes, but it sounds like an interesting read, calling for, as did many 17th-century works, simplicity and authenticity in speech and writing.

“To stuffe a Sermon with citations of Authors, and the witty sayings of others is to make a feast of vinegar and pepper, which may be very delightful being used moderately as sauces, but must needs be very improper and offensive to be fed upon such as diet.” – John Wilkins, Ecclesiastes (1646)

Quotation of the month – Johnson on the mutability of language

I’ve always been fascinated by the tension between prescriptivism and descriptivisim, so it was a surprise to discover the Preface to Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary only recently. I had difficulty choosing which part to quote, because the whole thing is so perfectly phrased in that poised but passionate 18th-century way. The whole text is well worth a read, and available on Project Gutenberg and on the British Library website.

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary Second Edition
Title page to the second edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language

“…with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.
With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.
…The language most likely to continue long without alteration, would be that of a nation raised a little, and but a little, above barbarity, secluded from strangers, and totally employed in procuring the conveniencies of life; wither without books…men thus busied and unlearned, having only such words as common use requires, would perhaps long continue to express the same notions by the same signs, But no such constancy can be expected in a people polished by arts, and classed by subordination, where one part of the community is sustained and accommodated by the labour of the other. Those who have much leisure to think, will always be enlarging the stock of ideas, and every increase of knowledge, whether real or fancied, will produce new words, or combinations of words. When the mind is unchained from necessity, it will range after convenience; when it is left at large in the fields of speculation, it will shift opinions; as any custom is disused, the words that expressed it must perish with it; as any opinion grows popular, it will innovate speech in the same proportion as it alters practice.” – from the Preface to Johnson’s Dictionary (1755)

Quotation of the month – Walter Moers takes us to Bookholm

I cannot recommend Walter Moers highly enough. His books combine fantasy, adventure, mystery, and stupendous writing. Reading his books you feel he has conjured a wild dream just for your enjoyment. Underlying it all is a huge sense of heart. Of love. Of passion for the wonder found in those small joys in life: from the taste of a perfectly ripe apricot to the alluring scent of old books.

Walter Moers The City of Dreaming Books

To Bookholm:
“You can smell the place from a long way off. It reeks of old books. It’s as if you’ve opened the door of a gigantic second-hand bookshop—as if you’ve stirred up a cloud of unadulterated book dust and blown the detritus from millions of mouldering volumes straight into your face. There are folk who dislike that smell and turn on their heel as soon as it assails their nostrils. It isn’t an agreeable odour, granted. Hopelessly antiquated, it is eloquent of decay and dissolution, mildew and mortality. But it also has other associations: a hint of acidity reminiscent of lemon trees in flower; the stimulating scent of old leather; the acrid, intelligent tang of printer’s ink; and overlying all else, a reassuring aroma of wood.
I’m not talking about living wood or resinous forests and fresh pine needles; I mean felled, stripped, pulped, bleached, rolled and guillotined wood—in short, paper. Ah yes, my intellectually inquisitive friends, you too can smell it now, the odour of forgotten knowledge and age-old traditions of craftsmanship. Very well, let us quicken our pace!” – Walter Moers, The City of Dreaming Books (Vintage Books, 2007) p.10.

Quotation of the month – Italo Calvino on how books change our lives

Mr Palomar is a collection of philosophical meditations, as beautifully written as they are stylistically inventive. This is a quotation about books and about life, and how we construct our own narrative. But it particularly appeals to me because I’ve always been fascinated by how a book can mean something completely different to you depending on when you read it. When I first tried to read Gwyneth Lewis’s Sunbathing in the Rain I gave up after a couple of chapters. Her writing about her experiences with depression was simply too raw, too painfully real, for me to continue. When I returned to it later, I found it full of hope. That second time, it quite honestly changed my life.

Italo Calvino's Mr Palomar

“A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but rather corresponds to an inner architecture. A person, for example, reads in adulthood a book that is important for him, and it makes him say, ‘How could I have lived without having read it!’ and also, ‘What a pity I did not read it in my youth!’ Well, these statements do not have much meaning, especially the second, because after he has read that book, his life becomes the life of a person who has read that book, and it is of little importance whether he read it early or late, because now his life before that reading also assumes a form shaped by that reading.” – Italo Calvino, Mr Palomar – The meditations of Palomar: Learning to be dead

Quotation of the Week – Caitlin Moran, again, On Books, again

Yes, Caitlin Moran was the source of my last quotation of the week. And yes, I’m aware that my “quotation of the week” feature happens about once a month, at most. But since my ambition/optimism dwarfs my sense of reality, “quotation of the week” it shall remain. And look, I actually read something by Caitlin Moran this time, instead of just listening to her talk. Ok, I didn’t read the whole book, but sometimes you just need to read a chapter to know that it’s great. And a quotation this brilliant, on such an important topic, had to be added to the collection. Enjoy.

“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft, and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. One a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate ‘need’ for ‘stuff’. A mall — the shops — are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.”

Caitlin Moran, Moranthology (Ebury Press, 2012), p.211.

Changing the world one word at a time – Caitlin Moran on writing

Is it possible to love a writer without having read anything they’ve written? It must be, because I love Caitlin Moran. Her intelligence, her humour, her honesty. She was tremendous on Desert Island Discs earlier in the year, frustrating Kirsty Young with her inability to answer any question seriously. She does talk seriously, though, about her writing. She talks about the joy of feeling like she’s “the first” to write about very real issues like being working class, or periods. Reporting that she’s often asked why she writes for The Times and not The Guardian, she says, “I’m writing to people whose minds I want to change. I should be showing them what this life is like.”

Listening to her talk about the power and joy she finds in writing was truly inspiring, so my favourite extract (below, 32:33-33:50) is my quotation of the week. The BBC have conveniently list-ified the episode for easy consumption: 10 things we learnt from Caitlin Moran’s Desert Island Discs.

Kirsty Young: How much does feeling in touch with where you came from seem important to you now? Because as you say you live the life of a metropolitan elite star journalist and writer.

Caitlin Moran: Yes. Err. What’s the best way to put this. Leading the life that I do, and living where I do, means that it’s impossible not to write constantly about being working class and council estates and weird kids and the people who don’t get written about.

Kirsty Young: Let me just stop you, you say it’s impossible because, what, because you feel…you wouldn’t be doing your duty…?

Caitlin Moran: Because living in media middle class Oxbridge white male London you are constantly living in a world where everyone presumes that’s normal, that that’s not a thing, that that’s neutral, that that’s the baseline of human experience. And that anything outside that is “other” that needs to be specially commissioned or kind of like “now we’ll go and take a look at these lives for twenty minutes underneath this rock” in a kind of Attenborough way. And not understanding that those lives, the working class lives, the lives on benefits, weird kids, autodidacts, the humour, the intelligence, the brilliance, the funny, the joy, the life, is the normal experience. That’s how most people are. And yet those lives are treated like a special case.

I’m putting her books to the top of my reading list immediately.

Cathy Drysdale (producer) and Kirsty Young (presenter), ‘Caitlin Moran, Desert Island Discs’, BBC Radio 4, 27 Jan 2017 [accessed 4 April 2017]


Robert Webb’s Teenage Diary

In 2012 Robert Webb was persuaded by Radio 4 to read out his teenage diary to a live audience. As you’d expect from someone who went on to be a writer and comedian, his diary is brilliantly written and very funny, particularly read aloud in Webb’s deadpan style. Much of the diary is taken up with a 17-year-old’s attempt at chasing girls, but, part way through, Webb’s mum is diagnosed with cancer. Six weeks later, she has died. His entry about her funeral is funny, devastating, and exquisitely crafted. It’s even better hearing him read it aloud, which you can still do on YouTube, thanks to the magic of the internet and questionable attitudes to copyright.

1st May. Well in the words of many relatives and friends, life goes on, doesn’t it. Well, yes, for some of us it does. I shouldn’t knock it, what the hell do I expect them to say.The funeral was a real highlight. I don’t have a suit so I unpicked the badge from my conveniently black sixth form blazer. So a couple of hours later, I’d at least taught myself to sew. How’s that for silver linings?

Mark drove with me next to him behind the hearse. He was obviously a bit tense, keeping it between second and third gear, with the clutch on his Astra squeaking with every change. He said, “How about a bit of music?” and turned on the radio. It was Kylie Minogue singing ‘I should be so lucky.’ We endured about fifteen seconds of this before he said, “yeah, maybe not appropriate.” And then, rather wonderfully, he didn’t just turn the radio off. He gently turned the volume down to silence, fading Kylie’s warbling out, as if in respect for the occasion. It occurred to me that this was the single most hilarious thing I’d ever seen or heard, but we all just stared unsmilingly ahead, and I tucked it away for later. What’s that Graham Greene says about every writer having a splinter of ice in his heart? I’ve got a splinter or two in mine now. Mark, fading Kylie out, I’ve never loved him more.

Faces are even grimmer than I expected, especially when they see me. But they’re all old, and they don’t have what I have. I’ve got a school badge in my pocket.


Harriet Jane (producer) and Rufus Hound (presenter), ‘Robert Webb, My Teenage Diary’ Series 4, Episode 1, BBC Radio 4, 27 June 2012 [accessed December 2016]

“We are made by what we read.” – Ali Smith

My favourite quotation that I’ve come across this week is from an episode of Desert Island Discs featuring the writer Ali Smith. I’ve long been an admirer of Ali Smith, although the word “admirer” doesn’t quite cut it: I’m more in awe of her, and would happily construct an altar made from her books at which I could daily worship.

I was introduced to her work through my undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature, in the context of what was simply called, “Paper One”. “Paper One”, at the time I was studying, was designed to give us a vague understanding of linguistics, essentially so that we would become better at analysing language in our more literature-based topics. It’s the kind of paper that allowed my friend to perfectly legitimately compare an Innocent Smoothie wrapper with an Emily Dickinson poem. Ali Smith’s writing was perfect for this paper: it’s self-consciously literary, playing around with what it means to read and write, making you pay attention to every single word. At the same time it seems effortless, like every story just tumbled, fully-formed, into the world. I love the way she picks up on the exquisite detail of things, and everything is made fascinating and extraordinary in that detail, whether it’s a bird in flight or a man vomiting.

I was thrilled to find she was a guest on Desert Island Discs, and to find she was every bit as eloquent and brilliant as her writing suggests. I transcribed a small section (from 36:12 onward) that I wanted to keep to remind myself of the immense power of stories.

Kirsty Young: We started today with a quote from you where you had said, “stories can change lives”. We tell ourselves stories about our lives, we write our lives ourselves, and we choose what to edit out, and what to reinforce, and when to repeat an experience, and when to leave a paragraph behind.
Ali Smith: Exactly.
Kirsty Young: In the process of writing for us what have you learned about yourself throughout the decades, do you think?
Ali Smith: I don’t read my writing, you can’t read your own writing, all you do is see the mistakes and the annoying things and hope that something’s working and not knowing whether it is. But I am a reader. And I feel like I have been made by a million books. I feel like any book I have ever written has been drawn together from everything I’ve read, and I don’t mean just books, I also mean the sides of pencils, and the sides of buses, and the things that catch the corner of the eye as we walk past them. We are made by what we read. We are made by what we take into ourselves. If there’s anything at all in this body right now then I’m going to thank all those books for it.

Sarah Taylor (producer) and Kirsty Young (presenter), ‘Ali Smith, Desert Island Discs‘, BBC Radio 4, 6 Nov 2016 [accessed 9 November 2016]