Ode to old books and shared stories

6th October 2000 at 01:00
SECOND-HAND books are like pickled eggs. You either love or hate them. There's no neutral territory. If they don't inspire religious devotion, they're an anathema.

Me? I pray facing Hay-On-Wye. I'm an unashamed zealot, a fanatic, a Jim Jones or David Koresh of re-sold bookishness. I know my faith will be the death of me. I lie in bed and listen for the first fatal crack of the attic floorboards above me and my duvet.

There are more than 10,000 books up there.

Question: How much is that in kilograms? Answer: God knows, but it's terrifying. And on my personal Judgment Day, when this heavy heaven of mine comes crashing to earth, it'll crush me for sure. And I lie awake thinking:

"Any second now ..."

At moments like these, your life flashes before your eyes. I remember standing outside a veritable cathedral of second-hand books in Halifax Piece Hall years ago. Two women were passing when one of them paused as if to enter, only to be dragged away by the other - clearly a heretic - who exclaimed: "Don't go in there. You know I hate books. They're so bleedin' ignorant!"

Here in Yorkshire, the word "ignorant" often means "rude". That's not as daft as it seems. When I was young, we were taught how rude it was to read in company, to ignore those around you. That, then, was the "ignore-ance" which this book-hater had transferred from reader to that which is read.

Her ignorance, my bliss... And my abiding love of used books lies in knowing that I'm not alone. Such books elevate the solitary pursuit of reading to a shared ceremony. We delve between those well-worn covers, conscious that we're treading where another has previously trod. These pages have been turned before. These words have history, their print has already been read. We're not alone. There's a sense of shared experience here - the sort of sharing that shapes religions and fortifies faiths.

Now's the time to embrace and develop shared reading. As never before, our lives are public. From mobile phones to e-mails, Jerry Springer to Big Brother, personal websites (mine's www.poems.fsnet.co.uk) to tabloid spreads, our privacy's being unwrapped. Sure, there's an unhealthy aspect to this compulsion to publish ourselves.But the de-privatisation of reading - and storytelling too - is different. Shared stories redeem us. They restore and enrich our relationships. Take these examples drawn from my work as a writer and performer...

Last year, I led a prison project in which inmates who were fathers were offered the chance to record stories for their children. All 80 volunteers took it seriously, selecting stories, and reading them with commitment.

Shared reading reveals that we care. Even absent fathers like these, many of them with a less-than-perfect parenting past, recognised this fact.

Most weekdays during term-time I tour schools as a writer-performer. A popular item in my repertoire is what I call "improvised storytelling". The pupils suggest two dozen unrelated words. I write these on the board and promptly tell a story which incorporates them all, deleting each word as I use it.

Why is such a narration so well received? I put it down to the fact that each story's unique and exclusive, a once-only account freshly created with and for those present. What's more, in each improvisation I'm an author caught reading directly from my imagination rather than a printed or memorised text. Shared, spontaneous narrative - from a story to an everyday animated conversation, has a magical, almost holy quality. Together, we follow its star and witness its birth.

My children, when still of pre-school age, taught me that technique of telling. They'd have me make up bed-time stories for which they'd prescribe key characters and settings and props, becoming indignant if any failed to appear in the unfolding tale. Becci, our eldest, was not yet three when she decided they were "stories from your mouth". I like that.

I get pupils to collect stories from families, friends and neighbours. It might be the silliest thing someone's ever done, or the most interesting person they've met.

Their stories sparkle. They share words with deliberate care. Why? I doubt that they know, but their ignorance is our bliss.

Nick Toczek is a children's poet published by Macmillan and by Hodder. He has worked with pupils from about 3,000 schools and is one of the National Reading Campaign's reading champions.


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