Reading helps young people cope with life (Post 34)

Cressida Cowell, the author of the How to Train Your Dragon series, was writing in The (London) Times Saturday Review last weekend – 22nd August 2020. What she had to say struck a chord with me. The piece was timed to appeal to parents and carers in England whose children are returning to school in early September after – in some cases – a six-month break because of the Covid19 restrictions. Understandably, some children will be fearful about going back to school. That prompted her to write about helping young people cope with fear, through reading.

“. . . To a certain extent you have to know the child: what is acceptably and even necessarily scary for one child might be very frightening indeed for the next. That’s one of the reasons why librarians and booksellers are so vital. They have so much experience of giving children the right book at the right moment.

“Reading together is also important; it means that the adult is there to chat about any issues in the book. . . .

“And don’t forget about the necessity of the words themselves. The first stage of dealing with any kind of fear is being able to describe it. The more a child reads or is read to (audiobooks still count), the more words they have to help them. This is why it is so important that books survive as a medium. It’s the words, people. Words are the pathway of thought: the more words a child has, the more intelligently and creatively they are able to think about their emotions and the emotions of others.

“Children’s books often distil the most important messages we and our children need to hear, doing so with simplicity, humour and heart. In the words of Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: ‘We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!’ “

I couldn’t have put it better myself! Good luck with the things that you fear – we all have them – and keep reading! (For other blog posts on reading and books, see Posts 5, 11 and 22.)

Wind – by Ted Hughes (Post 32)

See the source image

To my mind, this is another wonderful poem (See Posts 27 and 31 for others I admire and enjoy).

Although it has fairly even (in length), four-line stanzas, there is a random quality to the actions and elements described in the poem – reflecting the unexpectedness and sudden changes of events caused by a viciously high wind in the UK. (There are more damaging and stronger, but more consistent, winds that ravage other countries.) This poem seems to me to describe an English (Ted Hughes was a Yorkshire man) or Scottish storm particularly well.

1 The title bluntly describes what the poem is about. That bluntness – including use of monosyllables (one-syllable words) – is going to run throughout the poem.

2 The opening line challenges our imagination – how can a house be at sea? – but perfectly conjures up the sense of unsteadiness which has been caused by the buffeting wind howling around the outside of the house throughout the night.

3 Even indoors, the narrator has heard and seen the vicious damage caused by the winds. Inanimate objects – the woods, the hills, the winds – are given actions, as if they were alive: The woods crashing . . . the booming hills,/ Winds stampeding the fields . . . .

4 If this were prose (not poetry), there would be something missing in the final line of the first stanza: “astride” usually requires an object – that is, something is astride something else. Here there is nothing. And what is it that is astride, anyway? Is it the winds – stampeding the fields under the window/ Floundering black astride and blinding wet – ? Or is it the fields, or even the window? Certainly “blinding wet” would apply very well to the window during a rainstorm. Here there is a disconnect of language, something poetry can do very well and which we wouldn’t usually “get away with” in prose. The randomness and uncertainty of the actions and the nouns in lines 3 and 4 work to draw us into the situation of looking out of a house window during a raging storm.

5 I’m not going to go through this poem line by line, as I did with the other two. I don’t want to bore you, and also by now you will be able to respond to the poem in your own way, and explain how it works on you. I’m going to pick out a few things that I think work especially well, and a few techniques that we haven’t come across or focused on before.

6 Look at how the lines don’t always end with a punctuation mark. In these cases the sentence runs on into the next line – sometimes even into the next stanza (Stanza 1 into Stanza 2; 4 into 5). This effect is called enjambement (it means making a leg; I always think of a leg bending at the knee, seen side-on, with the thigh being the upper line and the calf being the lower one! OK, I’m strange, but it works for me). I particularly like how the reader comes to an end of the description of the night of the storm (at the end of line 4) and then, as soon as the next line and stanza begin, it is daybreak – and a whole new world, it seems, emerges into the light.

7 The storm continues during the day. An image (a picture in words) that I especially like comes in line 9 – At noon I scaled along the house-side. “Scaling” is how we climb cliffs. The wind is so strong that it threatens to blow the narrator off the side of the house. If you’ve been out in any really strong wind, you’ll relish that description!

8 Line 11 makes great use of monosyllabic wordsThrough, brunt, wind, balls, eyes – and hard-sounding lettersbrunt, that, dented, balls. The brutal impact of the wind on the narrator’s face and eyes is conveyed through the sounds of the words as well as though their meaning.

9 There’s a lovely extended metaphor in lines 12, 13 and 14. Remember, a metaphor is a comparison between two largely unalike things and doesn’t use either the word like or the word as. Here, the metaphor compares the hills with a tent: The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope, / The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace, / At any second to bang and vanish with a flap . . . . Have you been in a tent when it’s likely to be blown away by a very strong wind? The quivering canvas, the flapping of any sections which aren’t pinned down tightly enough – these are all reproduced here, and the hills (possibly tent-shaped on the horizon) – those massive, earthbound lumps of age-old rock – are made to seem flimsy and vulnerable in the face of the powerful wind.

10 Possibly my favourite part of the poem is the image of the black-Back gull [which] bent like an iron bar slowly. Every time I see a bird fighting its way into a strong wind, the black-back gull comes to mind. Again the hard sounds – blackback gull – suggest struggle, and the way in which the epithet (short description) black-Back is bent around the end of one line and the beginning of the next is, I think, genius! And it’s not bent “slowly, like an iron bar” but like an iron bar slowly – so that we have to continue reading the line, relentlessly, without comma or pause, in the same way that the wind is relentlessly pressing on and bending the gull.

11 Have you ever run a wet finger-tip round a fine glass to make it ring? It’s a wonderful sound; do try it. And here the whole house is being made by the wind to ring like a fine glass – and as with the tent-like hills, the massive house is rendered as fragile as glass by the whipping wind – The house/ Rang like some fine green goblet in the note/ That any second would shatter it.

12 The final six or so lines focus on the effect of the wind on the occupants of the house, and tell us of the unsettling, disturbing effect it has. Despite being safe in deep chairs, in front of a great fire, the occupants cannot concentrate on anything, but only sit and wait, experiencing the ravaging effects of the storm – watch the fire blazing . . . feel the roots of the house move . . . seeing the window tremble . . . Hearing the stones cry out . . . .

Perhaps reading this will make you want to try your hand at writing your own poems about intense experiences in nature!

Another poem: High Flight (Post 31)

This poem is very different from the last one we analysed (Valentine, by Carol Ann Duffy – see Post 27). Nevertheless, responding to the words you read, and giving evidence to back up your responses, are the two elements needed – once again – to write a critical account of the piece.

You don’t need to know this, but for interest’s sake: the writer of the poem, John Magee, was an Anglo-American aviator and poet. Magee served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, which he joined before the United States entered the second world war; he died in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire in 1941.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or
ever eagle flew –
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

1 You can see on the page or screen that this poem is fairly regular in its line lengths (unlike the Carol Ann Duffy poem). This shows us that the poet has put some effort into achieving that effect, as everyday speech and writing do not come out like that naturally. As I’ve said before, poetry is a form of writing where the writer has made an extra effort in his or her use of words, and so it is a form which repays an extra effort on the part of the reader.

2 In fact, if you count the number of syllables (units of sound within the words) in each line, you will find that they are all the same – ten syllables per line.

3 If you read the poem aloud, once you’ve got the sense of it, where do you put the strong stresses? Don’t get “hung up” on this, because different readers will read the poem differently, but on the whole I’d say that the stresses are in pairs, and that the most common stress pattern in those pairs is dit-DAH (weak-STRONG). Lines which are mostly ten syllables long, and where the stress pattern is most often weak-STRONG, are known as lines of iambic pentameter – and this is a very popular form in English because it is thought to resemble most closely the speech patterns of native speakers. Most of the text in Shakespeare’s plays, for example, is iambic pentameter.

4 Anyway – on to a more instinctive response! The title gives us a clue to what the poem is about – flying high. It could be about a bird – in which case the voice of the poem is the bird; we can tell this from the first line; “I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth”. The first verse (as it’s set out here – though in some editions the poem is only one, longer, verse) is a joyous description of flying and playing in the air. It is only in the final line of the first verse (or section) that we find out that the voice of the poem – the narrator – is not a bird after all, but a pilot: “I’ve . . . flung/ My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .”.

5 In the second verse, or second section, the narrator states that flying in his (or her – but as we know he was a pilot, it is likely that Magee is writing about his own experiences here) aircraft enables him to reach places that even birds cannot: “Where never lark, or even eagle flew – “.

6 What are the words and expressions which enable us to sense some of the joy and freedom the narrator feels whilst flying? “I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth”: he has escaped from the ties holding him to the ground. Notice the alliterationrepetition of a sound or sounds within a short distanceslipped – surly – to give a sense of something material (and unpleasant: surly means bad-tempered) falling away.

“And danced the skies” – a happy image (word picture), and one that tempts us to wonder at how anyone – or anything – could dance in the sky.

“on laughter-silvered wings” – laughter and silver are both attractive things; one speaks of happiness and joy, the other of beauty and richness. Notice, too, how the poet is appealing to both our sense of sound – with laughter – and our sense of sight – with silvered.

“Sunward” – most of us here on earth turn our faces to the sun, whether we be humans, animals or plants, as a matter of instinct.

“joined the tumbling mirth/ Of sun-split clouds” – mirth means happiness and laughter; sun-split (notice the alliteration again, which focuses our eyes and ears on the expression) clouds are something for us to conjure up in our imagination. It is (I think) a wonderful picture.

“and done a hundred things/ You have not dreamed of” – well, that’s how wonderful it is for him – better than any dreams we might have had.

“wheeled and soared and swung” – these are the actions he’s taken, and they have a marvellous sense of freedom about them.

“High in the sunlit silence” – having told us about things we can see, or imagine we see, he now appeals to our sense of hearing: there is no sound at all. (And yes, there’s more alliteration, again on the letter s. Either he really likes this sound, or – and having gone up in gliders for several years, I favour this interpretation – there is something about the s-sound that replicates or suggests the experience of flying freely.)

“Hov’ring there” – balanced between earth and sky, almost magically (because air-borne things usually fly or fall or climb). Why has he cut out the e of hovering, replacing it with an apostrophe? That’s because he wants to keep to ten syllables per line, and without the e we pronounce it as “hov – ring” – two syllables – rather than “hov – er – ing”, three syllables.

“I’ve chased the shouting wind along” – who wouldn’t want to be able to chase the wind? And here’s some sound, too – “shouting”.

“long, delirious, burning blue” – there’s a challenging image for you to conjure up! How can blue burn? How can blue be long? I expect you can explain that, but it’s not how we’d usually describe the sky, so I think it’s an excellent way of trying to get us to feel the wonder that the pilot feels. (Delirious, by the way, can mean wildly happy, which is how – I think – he wants us to feel here, even though – again – he’s actually describing the blue.)

“I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace” – what an achievement! And he makes it seem effortless – “with easy grace”.

7 At the end of the poem, we come to something going beyond even the physical, mental and emotional joys of flying. In the final three lines, the poet suggests that there is something spiritual about the experience of flying your own aircraft so high in the sky.

“with silent, lifting mind” – as if perhaps in a church, where people reflect in quietness and raise their thoughts to God.

“I’ve trod/ The high untrespassed sanctity of space” – sanctity means holiness. And he is not a trespasser here – it’s not wrong for him to be here.

“Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.” Here he is experiencing something beyond the normal human experience. There is something sublime about his experience while flying.

8 It seems wrong to say much, if anything, after that superb and mysterious ending – but you might want on another occasion to look at the rhyme-scheme [ABAB CDCD EFE GFG]. The poem is a sonnet . . . but that’s material for another day and another blog!

Eye tolled ewe sew – Homophones (Post 19)

Homophones are words which sound the same but are spelled differently – I/eye; told/tolled; you/ewe; so/sew. There are many in the English language.

Eye-rhyme is when this happens the other way around: words look as if they should rhyme, but they’re actually pronounced differently – rough, through, although, cough. The language is well supplied with traps for the unwary!

If you were brought up from your childhood to speak (and read and write) English, you are fortunate: you will have learned to avoid most of these traps almost as a matter of course.

Even native speakers can struggle at times, though. See how you get on with this ditty (a ditty is a short poem that rhymes very obviously and has a very distinct and simple rhythm), reading it for understanding. Read it aloud (it’s allowed …) if you want to make that easier!

Spell Chequer

Eye have a grate spell chequer:

It came with my pea sea.

It plainly marques four my revue

Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye strike a quay and type a word,

And weight for it to say

Weather eye am wrong oar write;

It shows me strait a-weigh.

Whenever a mist ache is maid,

It nose bee four two long;

And eye can put the error rite.

It’s rare lea ever wrong.

Eye ran this poem threw it and

I’m shore your pleased two no

It’s letter perfect awl the weigh:

My chequer tolled me sew.

Puns (Activity 18)

Ben Battle was a soldier bold,

And used to war’s alarms:

A cannon-ball took off his legs,

So he laid down his arms!

This is the first verse of a rather silly poem which has a pun in almost every stanza (stanza is another word for verse, although stanzas don’t have to rhyme, whereas verse usually does).

Puns are plays on words. They usually depend on words having more than one meaning, or words which sound alike.

In the verse above, the pun is on arms. Arms – like legs – are limbs on the human body; but arms can also refer to weapons, such as the rifles that infantry soldiers use. (Infantry soldiers fought on foot originally, rather than on horseback; you’ll need to know this to appreciate another pun, later!)

A punster – a rather derogatory [insulting] term for someone who makes puns – might describe the unfortunate Ben Battle as ‘armless – making a pun on the fact that he has laid down his weapons and so can’t do any damage: he’s [h]armless. This is the second type of pun.

Puns can be “awful” – very contrived and possibly in bad taste! Most people appreciate them, however, even if they don’t want to hear them used too often.

The poem I’ve quoted, which is called Faithless Nelly Gray and was written by Thomas Hood, goes on to tell how army surgeons made Ben some wooden legs. When he goes to see his girlfriend, however, she dislikes them and says that he’s not the man she fell in love with – a handsome soldier in his (red) uniform. Ben suspects, though, that she has actually taken up with another man while he has been away in the wars. Distraught with grief, he takes his own life – but even this sad ending does not stop Thomas Hood filling his verses with puns!

I won’t reproduce the whole poem here, but see if you can explain the puns in each of the following stanzas:

Verse 2:

Now as they bore him off the field,

Said he, “Let others shoot,

For here I leave my second leg,

And the Forty-second Foot!”

Verse 3:

The army-surgeons made him limbs:

Said he, “They’re only pegs:

But there’s as wooden members quite,

As represent my legs!”

Verse 6:

“O Nelly Gray! O Nelly Gray!

Is this your love so warm?

The love that loves a scarlet coat

Should be more uniform!”

Verse 11:

“O false and fickle Nelly Gray!

I know why you refuse:

Though I’ve no feet – some other man

Is standing in my shoes!

Rhythm (R-h-y [clap] t-h-m [clap]; R-h-y [clap] t-h-m [clap]) (Post 17)

Chants depend on rhythm for their effectiveness: think of Queen’s “We will, we will ROCK YOU [stamp] [stamp, stamp clap]”.

Protesters on a march or outside a key building will often start chanting, [Question] “What do we want?” [Answer] “Equal pay” (or whatever it is they want) [Question] “When do we want it?” [Answer] “NOW!”

RHYTHM is one of the most powerful devices we can use, to get our listeners’ attention.

REPETITION is also effective – as both Queen and the protesters described above realised.

Rhythm is a pattern of differently stressed sounds – generally either STRONG stresses or WEAK stresses. Let’s use DAH for a strong stress, and DIT for a weak one. So a toddler having a tantrum might say, “I want a toy”; what (s)he will probably do is stress the TOY word, and the pattern would be DIT DIT DIT DAH – “I want a TOY“.

If another child had a toy and ours wanted one as well, (s)he might say, “I want a toy” in the pattern DAH DIT DIT DIT – “I want a toy”.

If our toddler’s parent tried to reason with him/her, saying, “You don’t need a toy” the toddler might say, “I want a toy” with the stress on want – DIT DAH DIT DIT – “I WANT a toy”.

Not only does rhythm attract our listeners’ attention, it also helps to convey more exactly what we mean – as in the three different versions of “I want a toy” above.

Whenever we speak we use rhythm – the stress pattern of how I would say what I’ve just written is DIT-DAH-DIT DIT DAH DIT DIT DAH-DIT : Whenever we speak we use rhythm.

Each syllable of each word gets either a strong or a weak stress. “Whenever” has three syllables – when, ev and er. We (strong) stress the second syllable, and leave the other two with weak stresses: whenEVer.

Many words in English are only one syllable long (They’re called monosyllables). The stress we put on them depends on what we want to say – see the “toy” example above.

Rappers of course make the most extensive use of rhythm. Much of Shakespeare’s writing can be used as rap, because he too was very aware of the rhythm of how people speak. Here’s the opening of his play The Merchant of Venice, where Antonio is describing his depression to his friends:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

If you enjoy rapping, try saying these lines as rap.

Most of Shakespeare’s verse – but by no means all of it – falls into a pattern of DIT DAH DIT DAH DIT DAH DIT DAH DIT DAH – five pairs of syllables in each line, each pair a weak stress followed by a strong one. Some people have said that that is the pattern closest to the everyday speech of English-speaking people. (It’s known as iambic pentametre – just in case you’re interested.)

Try this: write down some examples of things you might say in everyday situations. (Write quite largely, as you need to be able to mark each syllable.) Now listen to yourself saying these things as you normally would, and put a mark above each syllable to show whether it’s WEAK or STRONG.

Mark weak syllables with a little dip-mark: Ῠ or Ῐ

Mark strong syllable with a little straight line: Ῡ or Ῑ

You’re well on your way to analysing poetry now – but I hope you’ll also have more fun when listening to the way you, and others, speak.

Rhyme (sounds like “rime”) (Post 16)

Our ears pick up rhyme, and so words that rhyme are more likely to attract our attention.

Babies and young children notice and enjoy rhyme from a very early stage of life. Along with rhythm – which we’ll tackle in a future post – rhyme is one of the most powerful ways of getting words noticed.

Rhyme can be irritating if you didn’t intend to use rhyming words – so it is useful to be able to avoid it, just as it is useful to be able to employ it when you choose to do so.

Once our ears and brain have picked up on a rhyming sound – EAR and HEAR, for example – they will be on the alert for more of these (DEAR, CHEER, FEAR, APPEAR …); so avoid over-use of rhyme if you want to keep your listener focused on the meaning of your words, rather than the sound of them.

That said, a “snappy” quotation using rhyme can effectively stay in a listener’s head for a lifetime. “A stitch in time saves nine” used to be a very popular proverb, meaning, “Put something right when you first notice it, or it’ll be a much bigger job later.” (TIME and NINE don’t rhyme exactly, but a close rhyme is often acceptable to our brains.)

“For as there is a certain time to rage / So is there time such madness to assuage” [assuage means calm down] is a piece of advice that was written about 500 years ago (by Sir Thomas Wyatt, who lived in the time of King Henry the Eighth) – and we can still understand and act by it today.

Thomas Wyatt wrote the words to songs (lyrics) amongst other things, and you’ll find that rhyme is still important in lyrics nowadays.

Can you make up rhymes? Can you spot them in time to avoid using them unintentionally in your speaking or writing?

How many words can you find to rhyme with each of the following?

HEAR; POUND; DOG; FOOD; CATCH; MOON; YOU; ME; LOVE; TOUGH.

Make up and write down some different rhymes of your own. You can go on with this for as long as you like; you might want to think of words with more than one syllable, as well – for example, FOLLOW; DAUGHTER; SEPARATE. Often these words will be rhymed only on the last syllable, for example SEPARATE with FORTUNATE; but two-syllable words can be rhymed completely to very good effect – for example FOLLOW/HOLLOW/SWALLOW/WALLOW and used for funny poems such as Limericks. (OK, we’ll look at limericks in more detail in a future post.)

Apparently there is no rhyme in the English language for the word ORANGE – so if you can find one, you might become famous!

Poems (No, wait – come back!) (Suggestion 15)

Some people really would rather run a mile than have to study poetry. It can have a reputation as being boring, difficult and a waste of time. Perhaps it’s a pity that many readers first study poetry when they are at school; in your school years there are so many interesting (and some not-so-interesting) things in your life that you either want to do, or have to do, that it’s maybe not the best time to introduce an experience which – yes – may take hard work at times, but which can have immense rewards.

For some people, poetry is read or spoken to them when they are very young, and that can give them a “head start” when it comes to realising that not all poetry has to be serious, or sad, or hard work. Nursery rhymes are a great way to start really young people on poetry: most babies and youngsters respond to rhythm, rhyme and other people’s voices. If that happened to you, you are fortunate.

Like several things we are made to learn at school, poetry is put in front of us as pupils because even if we don’t like (or see the point of) it now, we might very well need it in our lives beyond school. If we can be taught not to run away from poetry, it will be easier for us to turn to it again in future at particularly sad or happy times in our lives – or just for fun, or entertainment, or to find out more about how people lived and thought and felt in past times.

If the idea of someone NEEDING poetry makes you snort in disbelief, then I think you have been pretty lucky in not yet experiencing times in which you feel very much alone. One of the great comforts of some poems is that they allow us to realise that other people have experienced the same troubles (and joys) as we have done.

What is poetry?

There are many answers to that question, but I invite you to think about poems as pieces of work in which words are used for more than just their surface meaning. Someone writing a poem may well – probably does – put a great deal of work into choosing words that will have effects on the reader, not just convey information to him or her.

Imagine the picture that is created in your mind, for example, by this description (a “dinghy” is a rowing boat):

The dinghy across the bay

Puts out two hands and swims

An elegant backstroke over

A depth full of images1

A poem, then, is an experience where the reader is expected to work harder than usual in responding to the words written down (or spoken). In that sense, yes, poetry can be hard work; but like most things in life, the more effort you put into it, the more you’re likely to get out of it.

And in case that sounds just horribly “preachy”, let’s finish today’s post with encouraging words from a poet whose work can be funny and straightforward, and no less important for that. Firstly, Wendy Cope comments on the view that some poems are for adults and others are for children: “There is no such thing as a poem that is only suitable for children. If it’s bad, it is unsuitable for everybody. If it’s good, there is no age limit.”

Reflecting on her own work in particular, she writes: “I do believe that humour and powerful emotion can exist in the same poem. And that a funny poem can be saying something important. … I think that humour often arises out of misery and despair. Sometimes life seems so terrible that all you can do is laugh at it.” Her best-known poem, probably, is called Bloody Men. I’ll leave you to look that one up on the internet yourself, if you’re interested.

Meanwhile, here are two light-hearted (but thought-provoking!) and short verses by Wendy Cope.

Limerick

A talented young chimpanzee

Was keen to appear on TV.

He wrote to Brooke Bond

But they didn’t respond

So he had to become an MP.

Valentine

My heart has made its mind up

And I’m afraid it’s you.

Whatever you’ve got lined up,

My heart has made its mind up

And if you can’t be signed up

This year, next year will do.

My heart has made its mind up

And I’m afraid it’s you.2

1 Extract from No End, No Beginning by Norman MacCaig

2 Both from Two Cures for Love by Wendy Cope (Faber and Faber, 2008)

The JOY of Reading (Post No.11)

As I’ve written before, there are different types of reading: we read differently depending on WHY we’re doing it. Today, however, I want us to focus on reading for sheer PLEASURE!

For some of you, that may be a “given” – that is, you already know what a joy reading can be.

For others of you, you may be thinking, “Yeah, right. That’s not going to happen.”

I’d ask you to try your best to get to a stage where reading is not an effort for you. It can be a great pleasure as you lose yourself in fiction, fantasy or real-life stories – especially at this time when we are all having to stay indoors and away from other people a lot more than we are used to doing.

So – two aspects to today’s post: ONE – WHAT you might read; TWO – HOW you might come to read easily.

ONE – WHAT might I read now? If you know what sort of book you like, this is a good time to get hold of more of the same type and to enjoy them.

If you want to experiment with books that are different from the ones you’ve already read, this is a good time to do that as well! We almost all have plenty of time on our hands at the moment.

If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford to buy books online, there are many places where you can do this – Amazon, of course; also Waterstones and Blackwells bookshops, and possibly an independent bookseller closer to your home. Look at the “blurb” – what’s written about the book – before you add it to your list, and also read the reviews; if you’re spending money, you want to be fairly sure that you’re spending it on something you’re going to like. Don’t feel pressured into buying something that’s won prizes or had a lot of publicity; buy what appeals to you, and perhaps books that are recommended by people you know, who like the same sort of thing that you do. Feel free to type in lots of different categories in the Search bar; this is also a good time for online browsing, and you might come across interesting-sounding books that would otherwise have escaped your notice.

If you can’t or would rather not buy books online, there are many which can be downloaded for free. Just searching for “free books online” I came across a number of sites which you might want to browse. https://bookriot.com for example lists 15 sources of free online books, with the 15 categories differing widely. I thought that https://manybooks.com also looked promising, again because you can browse by category and also because it didn’t seem overwhelmingly American in tone.

I’m not recommending anything – site or book – in particular at this point, because I know from experience how awkward and boring it can be if you’re recommended something and end up not liking it. Feel free to make your own choices!

What I would say, though, is that unless you really LIKE reading on a screen, you’ll probably get more enjoyment from a hard-copy – i.e. paper – book, and find it easier to follow and to read swiftly. So for that reason, another GREAT source of new reading material is ANYTHING THAT YOU AND YOUR FAMILY ALREADY HAVE IN THE HOUSE. This may not be the time to be choosy: read as much as you can, and see what you like and don’t like.

TWO – HOW can I get to the stage where I read almost without realising I’m doing it?

If you’ve been doing what I recommended in Post No. 5 – Read, read, read! – you’ll be well on the way to absorbing written words rather than having to make an effort to read them. Well done: keep up the good work!

If you haven’t started that, give it a try – and don’t be put off by difficulties. Anything worth doing takes effort and practice. Stick at it. Ask for help with words you don’t recognise. Use a dictionary if you need help which you can’t – or don’t want to – get from another person. This site tells you how to pronounce words, too: http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com. Just be sure to choose the English (BrE) version of the word rather than the American (NAmE) one (unless you want to sound American, of course – which is fine!).

Choose a story you think you’d like to read. A short piece is better to start with – maybe something from a magazine.

Do you find it easier to read aloud to yourself rather than “in your head”? That’s fine to start off with. Read to yourself until you’re happy with the speed that you’re achieving. If there are too many puzzling words, though, try to find something easier to read. At this stage you want to grow in confidence and fluency, not to struggle unnecessarily.

Once you’ve got up to a speed you’re happy with, try your next (part of the) story just moving your lips to shape the words but not making any sound. Again, keep going until you’re happy with the speed and understanding of your reading. Be aware that this may take days or weeks: don’t over-do it each day, just make sure that you practise each day and try to improve each time.

Finally (for now), practise reading without moving your lips. Make your eyes move from word to word at a steady pace, and pause a little at commas, and a little longer at full stops. These are the places from which to go back, if you find you haven’t understood something.

Now you’re well on your way to reading for pleasure. Well done! Keep practising!

Remind me again: why are we doing this? (Idea No. 10)

Friday 24th April 2020 – Here in the UK, as in many countries across the world, we are in “lockdown” as we try to stop the coronavirus known as Covid19 spreading at an uncontrollable rate.

Never before has communication been so highly valued.

We can’t touch people outside our own homes – and many people are living on their own – but we CAN talk, listen, read and write to one another.

This morning on the radio I heard about a woman who used to visit her 91-year-old aunt regularly. Now, of course, she can’t do that; but they speak by phone every day, and when they realised that there’s a limit to what you can talk about if you’re staying in the house all day, they started playing word games over the phone. The one they chose is called “Just a Minute” and has been played for many, many years on a popular radio programme of the same name. I’ll tell you about it in a future blog, in case you haven’t heard of it.

When they tired of “Just a Minute”, the woman I heard about started to read stories to her aunt – whose eye-sight is very poor – over the phone. They are both enjoying this activity greatly, and find that the stories prompt them to have conversations about times and events that the 91-year-old aunt remembers.

Yesterday I phoned a friend who is having a tough time, because I couldn’t think what to put in an email reply to her. When at the end of our chat I apologised for not being able to think of anything to write to cheer her up, she said, “Not to worry: just hearing your voice has been great.”

So: talking and listening are life-lines at this testing time. The better you are at suiting your talking and listening to the different people in your life, the more you’ll be able to help them.

Post is still being delivered, too, by Royal Mail, and although there isn’t very much of it – in fact, probably BECAUSE there isn’t very much of it – people love getting cards and letters. Reading and writing are therefore very important, too.

Reading to ourselves (as well as to others) can also be a great escape from the real world. And when the everyday world is depressing, or frightening, or boring, escaping into a happier, more hopeful, more interesting one through reading a book can be both enjoyable and good for our mental health.

Fantasy stories are popular, as they can be a complete change from our own world. Stories about the past can also work as escapism, however, or make us think about how different times were also difficult, but possibly in different ways. Even books about other real people in the 21st or 20th century can help us to take time out from our own lives and think about what others have been through – for better or for worse.

Writing, even if you don’t think anyone else will read it – even if you don’t WANT anyone else to read it – is a very good way to let out some of your feelings. Once you’ve written down what it is that’s worrying or scaring you, it can seem easier to cope with. Just trying to describe how you feel – and why – is a helpful writing task, as it makes you slow down and gives you time to reflect on your situation. Then you might go and talk to someone about it – or you might not, and just feel better for having “got it out of your head”.

Talking, listening, reading and writing – our tools for survival as sane and compassionate human beings.

Look after yourself, and look after others.