Philip Pullman on the power of the book

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In addition to all the fantastic free short talks right here in Blackwell’s during the World Humanist Congress, I was also lucky enough to attend Philip Pullman’s talk at the Sheldonian, mysteriously entitled ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’. Pullman is one of Oxford’s most well-known authors, and it was a real pleasure to hear him speak about the life and responsibilities of writers – the metaphor of the cuckoo’s nest was perfect for discussing the way one’s writing can take over one’s life.

One particular point that Pullman explored was the difference between the relationship of book and author, and that of book and reader.

“Writing is not democracy; writing is tyranny. But reading is democracy.”

What he means by this is that the author may have total control over a book while it is being written, but that the moment it begins to be read, he ceases to have control over how it is read. The reader is free to derive whatever they wish from any book – “when you open a book, it is secret, private” and the relationship is “precious, individual”. This freedom of interpretation fitted in perfectly with the theme of the World Humanist Congress, “Freedom of Thought and Expression”, and was extremely thought-provoking. Certainly I know that the books I’ve fallen most in love with have been the ones I’ve discovered by myself, and not the ones that school teachers demanded I interpret.

Pullman was insistent about the power of literature and the arts to influence children and young people, and lamented that there is little chance for children to discover literature at their own pace. Literature, he argues, shows us what it is to be human, and can be used to equip a reader with an understanding, a model, of how to live – however, this is most powerful if the discovery is organic, and something read as a child suddenly bursts into flower years later, meaning one more facet of humanity makes sense. But, he says, if there is someone watching over the reader’s shoulder, telling them what to think of it, then this magic bond is lost. Pullman is fond of using the words ‘magic’, ‘enchantment’, ‘spell’ – and I think anyone who loves to read will understand why!

As a reader (and I’m sure most of you are), I know that much of my childhood reading, and even the reading I do today, worked to subtly influence how I see the world, and who I am. Watching Anne Shirley grow up through the Anne of Green Gables books gave me a model I still subconsciously aim for; Hermione Granger was the perfect comfort to a frizzy-haired, bookish schoolgirl. So to hear Pullman acknowledge the special bond between reader and book, reader and character, to be as strong if not stronger than the relationship between writers and their own works, was extremely powerful.

Would you agree? Is there something secret between the reader and what they read? Which books and characters have influenced how you see the world?

If this has inspired you to read something by Philip Pullman, then why not pop into the shop, or check out our online store here?

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