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REVIEW: Until Julius Comes… Adventures in the Political Jungle

julius

Until JuliusUntil Julius Comes… Adventures in the Political Jungle

 Richard ‘Hannibal Elector’ Poplak

Tafelberg

REVIEW: Donald Paul

In 2011, an Irish journalist based in Cape Town wrote a book about Julius Malema, called An Inconvenient Youth, and the New ANC. The author, Fiona Ford, titled her first chapter ‘The devil wears Breitling’. Ford writes that she was with Malema in Caracas, Venezuela, for the conference of the World Federation of Democratic Youth. It’s Saturday, 24 April 2010. Back in South Africa, on Monday, 26 April, the ANC were planning to meet to decide on suitable “disciplinary measures to deal with the youth” Julius Malema.

Ford describes sitting with Malema in the Caracas hotel and his agitation about the hearings, but what stands out are his fashion comments delivered to Ford “with scorn, pity and dismay, all rolled into one”.

“The leather in your shoes is supposed to match the leather in your belt and your watch. So if you wear brown leather shoes,” he tells her, “you must wear a brown leather belt, and a brown leather watch.”

Three years later, Richard Poplak is on the 2014 electoral campaign of Julius Malema’s fledgling party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. And what pops up but fashion and the red beret, the “primary piece of ordinance” in the EFF’s “prêt-à-porter arsenal”. Poplak goes on to quote Walter Benjamin on the “intersection of politics and fashion” (don’t get nervous – this is the sort of erudite reference Daily Maverick readers expect) but the catching issue here is fashion: the production and marketing of something, reputedly “new”. Ford’s excellent book had only one glaring error: it wasn’t a ‘new’ ANC that Malema was fashioning, but his own political entity.

If after reading Ford, you sat up, replaced the screw top on the chardonnay or ordered a Coke without the klippies, and reconsidered your blasé notions of South Africa’s loudest and most “inconvenient” youth; after reading Poplak, you will skip the chardonnay and Klippies, and go straight to the spook and diesel.

Poplak points out – correctly – that the Democratic Alliance candidates in the 2014 election were not “bloodthirsty enough. Not battle-hardened enough”. What turns Mmusi Maimane on is macroeconomics, which is just not going to cut it in the brick-flinging, Molotov cocktail arena of South African politics.As he says, “no matter how much bullshit they [the EFF] spew, those berets scream ‘revolution’. And revolution is, sadly, sexier than macroeconomics”.

The great joy of being on the campaign trail with Poplak though is not only the insights into Julius Malema but also the side characters. Take Kenny Kunene and his Patriotic Alliance Party. Poplak reminds us ofthe fact that Kunene “isn’t the biggest piece of shit in South Africa” and that his talk about “helping children as often as Michael Jackson did, which, I’ll admit, is always a cause for worry” are not really the issues. What is the issue is that “no one knows what he does” since he stopped his life of crime and “got into the Brave New South African economy of producing nothing”. (He “won tenders” apparently.)

His take on Mamphela Ramphele is summed up in the preamble to the chapter devoted to her: “Destiny’s Child: In which we consume lox and cream-cheese bagels with the Worst. Politician. Ever.” Say no more.

And if you thought President Jacob Zuma was all about the laugh (Heh,HEH, heh, heh), then Poplak’s take on him is chilling. Zuma “radiates no intelligence… he is not a man of purpose, but a man of power”, and that does not bode well for the country.

Richard-Poplak

Richard Poplak

Poplak’s style and language is mesmerising; the sentences flow through inflamed urban streets, splash against discordant images, and swirl around people who we know through their public presence, but who he engulfs with wave after wave of detail. His chapter on Trevor Manuel is searing and wickedly funny, filled with the sort of niggles, usually ignored, that legends always leave in their trail. Who would have thought our country’s economic destiny was forged “by way of grammar”?

Julius Malema recently addressed the Cape Town Press Club. The venue was Kelvin Grove – yes, I know, last bastion, white privilege, racist, anti-Semitic, etcetera –  ­and Malema read his audience perfectly. Okay, the literacy requirement was at the level of: “Here is Jacob. Here is Helen. Jacob and Helen go up the hill”, but still, he nailed it.

Malema in front of this audience became a praise poet for Helen Suzman, an admirer of Helen Zille (whom he never once referred to as ‘Madam’), and a damning critic of both President Jacob Zuma and and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, whom he speared with the comment that “Cyril loves money more than people”, referring to the Lonmin mine workers killed at Marikana.He also said that as he helped put Zuma in power, he would help Zuma lose that power. They loved it.

Malema was and is the consummate politician. Poplak resorts to gamer jargon to capture Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters. “In the grimy scrim of South African politics, the Angry Birds gamer is a proxy for [the EFF], who are merrily catapulting ‘enraged urban youth’ into a piggish ruling party’s teetering political home.”

But is not just the ANC’s political home that is under threat from the EFF. It is the nation’s political metropolis. At the EFF’s final election rally, Poplak is at his descriptive best as Malema makes his entrance: “Fighters in white golf shirts and men in ersatz military uniforms… 30 bikers on screaming hogs and sport bikes, red-lining their engines to a slaughtered-pig squeal of mechanical agony”. There’s more. It’s a great essay.

But, as he says, the policies Malema promises the crowd have never worked, and the EFF party apparatchiks will not make them work “because none of them have actually done anything”.

But that’s a trifling detail when Julius comes.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in September 2014.

 

REVIEW: Black Dog Summer

Black dog

Black Dog SummerBlack Dog Summer

Miranda Sherry

Head of Zeus

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

For an author to step into the arena of farm murders in literature could be construed as a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread. It is, as we all know, a highly politicised, deeply painful and painfully divisive topic in South Africa.

Perhaps the reason Sherry manages to tread like an angel, rather than a galumphing, rallying apocalyptic horseman, is because the family affected by the murder central to this story is not Afrikaans. Had it been, the stuff of this story might have become stuck inside the Gordian knot of our violent history and our violent present.

As an English-speaking South African the choice of an English-speaking murdered woman as the narrator was probably natural for Sherry, but it was also beneficial. Because for this story to be understood, it needs to be as clear as it can be of politics. Sherry’s aim is not to dissect motives or analyse context, but merely to reflect on the fact of violent death and what it leaves in its wake.

Not that the story of Bryony and Gigi is coy, naive or purposefully obtuse. It’s just that the intricacies of the setting of this story – Limpopo and Joburg – are the background noise to the real drama: the way people make sense of that which cannot be apprehended by any amount of reasonable thought.

Gigi’s murdered mother Sally – finds that “something went wrong with [her] dying” and that she is able, unemotionally, almost coldly, to gather story threads from those she left behind.

I’m not a fan of dead narrators, but found the narrator’s “not-aliveness” far less disturbing and intrusive than I expected. That she “steps in” towards the end was not, I’ll admit, my favourite part of the story. The denouement would have worked fine without this other worldly intrusion. However, on the whole, and considering the other magical elements in the story (a sangoma features prominently); Sherry keeps her narrator on a fairly short leash.

After Sally dies, the highly traumatised Gigi is taken in by her cousin Bryony’s family. The family’s psyche has already been brutalised by an unspeakable crime, affecting each in a different way, now they must find a way to accommodate this newly parentless teenager who is, in fact, a stranger to them. For eleven-year old Bryony, this intrusion is hardest, because she must share her room with her stunned “zombie” cousin.

The “dead” narrator can be forgiven ten times over for this one immense gift that Sherry gives the reader: the delicate and utterly believable creation of child characters. Not once, as the story gathers tension and gallops towards a really unexpected and riveting last quarter, does she impinge on their dignity as humans, belittle their confusions and fantasies, or patronise them for their responses.

Black Dog Summer is tightly woven and richly rewarding. It is not flaccid or overwritten, never overwrought nor mawkish. It is simply a sterling story, well told, by an author who, I hope, will produce another novel very soon.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in September 2014.
  • The painting of the dog on the featured image is by Rachel Howard.

 

REVIEW: Dark Windows

dark windows feature pic

DW_full coverDark Windows

Louis Greenberg

Umuzi

Review: Jonathan Amid

In 2007, The Beggars Signwriters signaled Louis Greenberg as a talented, sensitive author capable of telling moving, poignant stories. Greenberg is also one half of the horror-writing duo S.L Grey, writing with Sarah Lotz. Dark Windows is his latest offering, gripping and original, and it will arguably confound and challenge many readers, while offering a resolutely different kind of speculative, apocalyptic fiction.

As South Africans, our obsession with impending doom and peril is associated either with crime or racial discord. Somewhere on the horizon, for many, lies the day where we will meet our end at the hand of the threatening other. Set not in the future but in the present day, after the Mbeki administration, Greenberg sets up a superbly realised conceit: the country is run by the Gaia Peace Party. And Gaia Peace is all about positive energy; a remarkable turnaround in social welfare, a staggering reduction in the consumption of meat, and a 90 percent reduction in crime, with the virtual absence of proper security and alarm systems, not to mention the belief by the woman in charge, senior minister Meg Hewitt, that a game-changing supernatural event, The Arrival, is to usher in the best of what is yet to come. Yet dissent is growing. Amid all the light and seeming positivity is the feasible undertow of mind-control, possibly how the incumbents managed to come to power in the first place, though few are willing to offer this insight in public.

Greenberg constructs the novel’s architecture, and I use this word because of Greenberg’s dexterity in shaping a text which is thoroughly unpredictable, character-driven, quietly clever and illuminating through its spare, exacting prose, around three main figures: the haunted Jay, a man who receives hot-stone therapy as punishment for an earlier transgression, and whose need for redemption and self-examination follow him around wherever he must perform secretive jobs for the state; Beth, the troubled and uncertain married woman with whom he has a steamy affair; and the bureaucrat Lang, whose own story and personal history add a further layer of intrigue to the novel.

Deliberately, then, I leave the title for last, since it speaks directly to the driver of the novel’s plot, but also to the kind of character revealed by the novel. For Project Dark Windows, Jay must paint black the windows of five specifically chosen sites, united by a death on the premises. As further details of the deaths emerge, and while Jay is in the process of painting these windows each on a different day, the veracity and true nature of the Arrival comes into question. As the tension mounts, considerably so, Greenberg interrogates with poise and acid clarity notions of guilt, redemption, the collective unconscious, the nature of belief, the meaning of death and the need to be loved. This novel, by its striking end, has turned the notion of certainty on its head, opening further windows for reflection.

  •  This review first appeared in the Cape Times in  2014

REVIEW: Birdseye

Birdseye

BirdseyeBirdseye

Maire Fisher

Umuzi

Review: Jonathan Amid

After Nadia Davids so evocatively captured female youth and the tensions of growing up as a Muslim girl during the interregnum in An Imperfect Blessing, Maire Fisher’s luminous debut, Birdseye, offers an altogether less political, but no less intriguing, South African narrative.

Spanning a measure of time from 1984 to 1995, Fisher draws the reader in from the get go, telling the story of Amelia ‘Bird’ Little, her parents, Annie and Orville, her five siblings, sisters Angela, Anthea and Alice, and twin brothers Oliver and Oscar.

The story of the Little family is defined by the menacing, icy presence of matriarch Ma Bess, ruling over their home, the Marchbanks-Hall mansion in Harbiton, with a steely grip and sardonic worldview. Ma Bess is not only Annie’s mother, but an ‘ice queen’ and a ‘dragon’ whose malicious actions and intemperate words thunder through the passages. She has little time for any of her grandchildren, despises her son-in-law, Orville, and has a terrible secret to keep, one that involves the wonderfully named ‘Pa God’, which will have her family reeling.

Yet Birdseye concerns itself not only with the vicissitudes of the Little household in relation to the terrifying Ma Bess. A far greater narrative of all-consuming loss is to take hold of the young life of Bird, so named because of the gentle cheeps she made at birth.

Her twin brothers disappear after a fishing trip, and this cataclysmic event – affecting each member of the Little family differently, but having a particularly pronounced effect on the development of the young Bird – sets in motion the desperate attempts by a sensitive girl to keep (the memory of) her beloved brothers alive.

It is no accident that the boys leave Bird with a memento, a fish hook, before their fateful departure: Fisher’s novel finds a fitting way to hook the reader, presenting written correspondence from the traumatised Bird to her brothers, writing that capture all the pain, disillusionment, lyricism, tenderness, tenacity, playfulness and a conscious desire to stand guard against forgetting that apply to the novel as a whole as well. It is, furthermore, an entirely apposite narrative device to employ Bird’s one-sided ‘conversations’, where she is able to find her own voice, and determine the texture and content of her stories, in relation to the powerlessness and alienation she feels as the rest of her family, particularly her three sisters – characterised in turn by their submissive, rebellious and questioning natures – each find their own set of wings, and battle to escape from various cages, be they domestic, social, or explicitly political.

If Birdseye is a meditation on the power dynamics that make families what they are, it is also acutely aware of the way that life has an uncanny way of pulling the rug from under our feet, leaving us with mysteries that might never be sufficiently answered.

As the disappearance of Bird’s twin brothers leave a terrible absence in the lives of the Littles, Birdseye’s narrative trajectory slowly but surely inches closer to the telling of an altogether different kind of story: the detective thriller. Fisher adroitly shifts gears to accommodate a stylistic and thematic fork in the road where the tone becomes altogether more gloomy, the protagonist finds herself consumed less by grief than by obsession, and the bare bones of the truth are delivered by a Detective Ace: the world is much greater than Marchbanks-Hall, and filled with men that would love nothing more than to see the world burn.

Giving nothing away, the novel’s portentous conclusion confirms that the protagonist indeed has the courage of her convictions.

Ditto the author.

In a protean narrative that shifts its thematic focus while remaining constant in focalization, we encounter lucid, considerably warm prose – cutting across intriguing views on forms of love and relationships, loss, the nature of freedom and the need to keep searching in life – figured through metaphorical language that makes full use of references to birds (wings, feathers, flight) and angels (halos, light, wings, purity and protection). Only on occasion does this technique become too ornate and distracting.

A debut brimming with quiet confidence, Birdseye offers far more than a cursory glance or a simple view from above at ordinary people touched by extraordinary sadness. As we journey from caverns of darkness and pain to faint glimmers of hope and tremendous courage, from a girl’s quest to remember her brothers and to guard against oblivion to our own ever-pressing need to tell our own stories and find a place to call home, we are reminded time again of the need to search for truth, no matter how trying the quest or elusive the prize.

  •   This review first appeared in the Cape Times in August 2014

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Adults Only: Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality

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Adults Only: Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality

Edited by Joanne Hichens

Mercury

REVIEW: Karina Magdalena Szczurek

The stories in this anthology have been selected from some 150 entries submitted for the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories competition.

As with all such collections, the quality of the twenty-two individual pieces varies. The authors range from first-time-published to award-winning practitioners of the genre.

Additionally, in this particular case, every reader’s sexual preferences will strongly influence their reading of these diverse contributions. Sex in all its permutations is a highly personal experience, as is writing and reading about it. Hats off to the editor and all the authors for their daring explorations of the mine-fields of our sexualities.

As Aryan Kaganof’s narrator states, “there is no love that is not an echo”; he also understands that “real sex happens in the head”. Erotic stories are like lovers. They will either satisfy you or leave you wanting.

No doubt a few of the contributions will bring many readers out of their comfort zone and will have you reading through your fingers. Others will excite you. Some will delight with their humour or tenderness. There is a lot to be learned. Who would have thought that Woolies would emerge from the anthology as the preferred place of choice for sexy lingerie shopping? Or that the smell of semen reminds some of peeled potato? I didn’t even want to know what blunt knives could be used for. Every reader will find something to please or disturb them. No matter what, brace yourself: Adults Only is one hell of ride for most of its journey.

After reading the opening story, Alex Smith’s “The Big Toad”, I knew that I would never be able to look into my kitchen cupboards without apprehension, and perhaps a tiny bit of envy. I might have to get some Jungle Oats to liven up the scene inside my predictable cupboards. Arja Salafranca’s “Post-Dated Sex” made me look at post-it notes with fresh eyes. Her story approaches that beautiful space between lovers where words “dissolve” and become something “instinctive that moves against them.” Beauty is also the subject of Donvé Lee’s “The Mirror”. Lee is the author of An Intimate War (2010), one of the most erotic local novels of recent years. Her story shines with a similar intensity and rare honesty.

The competition’s winning entry, Nick Mulgrawe’s “Turning”, is a well-written and a worthy choice, but it did not move me as much as Ken Barris’s captivating “Louka in Autumn”, or Anthony Ehler’s shattering “Breaking the Rules”, or Alexander Matthews’s illuminating “Entropy”. Efemia Chela is a young writer to watch. Her “Perigee” is as bold and astute as her recently Caine Prize-shortlisted “Chicken”. She writes a lush and supple prose that is a pleasure in itself.

The language of sexuality is a very tricky thing to master. What will arouse one person, will do nothing for another. It’s so easy to fall into clichés and vulgarity. So it was quite refreshing to smile at phrases like “sex has always been at best pedestrian – Tim walks all over me” (in Christine Coate’s “The Cat’s Wife”, a tale of a bored wife seeking out adventures which will make her fly, literally and otherwise), or to admire the eloquence with which Justine Loots describes the sadness of an encounter between a prostitute and a young inexperienced man: “One of his wings, if he has wings at all, is torn at the edge. It won’t affect his flight much, you won’t even see it, but it’s there all the same.”

The magic realist twist of Loots’s story “Uncaged” brings a wonderful dimension to the entire book. Strange beasts roam the world she creates; one can never be sure who is the prey and who the predator.

Aryan Kaganof’s story “Time Out With My Destiny” is powerful. With every paragraph the first-person narrator lures you in, manages to surprise and capture something unique, and ends on a shattering note. A “wow story”, my husband said when I read it aloud to him.

The stories in Adults Only capture different aspects of our relationships: from tender intimacy to raw sex, and beyond, to abuse and rape. Wamuwi Mbao’s “The Ninth Wave” tells of that moment when wanting more from a relationship breaks the little that the other is prepared to give. Alan Waters’ debut story “A Threesome in the New South Africa” recounts a hilarious encounter between a middle-aged man, his younger girlfriend, and a Rastafarian of intimidating proportions.

Not every longing is clearly identifiable. In Dudumalingani Mqombothi’s “The Streetwalkers”, the search for his lost father leads a man into the arms of a sex worker.

Adults Only is a fascinating read which showcases the diversity, audacity and vibrancy of South African fiction.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in September 2014.

REVIEW: A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War

Broken World

a_broken_world_600A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War

Edited by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf

Hutchinson

REVIEW: Melvyn Minnaar

Stuart Cloete, the successful novelist, was a familiar face in Hermanus, where he lived most of his life. Before his death in 1976, the prolific writer and his wife, Tiny, would frequently be seen walking above the Old Harbour where a curious cairn commemorates locals who died in the World Wars.

In this compelling anthology of voices giving first-hand accounts of the ‘Great War’, Cloete’s description of his experiences on the Somme, a captain at the age of nineteen, is a vivid turn back of the clock.

The horror and misery of the 1914 battlefield comes vividly to life in 3D: “…where we fought several times over the same ground bodies became incorporated in the material of the trenches themselves….I once fell and put my hand right through the belly of a man.”

As Faulks notes in his introduction, before that war – that started precisely a century ago – it was difficult to imagine that humans were capable of its scale, dread and destruction. Never before had anyone experienced this dimension of killing, and hence to participants this was an unknown first-time theatre of dread.

If, as he suggests, the First World War was a marker of the defeat of an ‘enlightenment’ that had dated back centuries, subsequent history, and mainly WWII, put us on a new tangent of morality. Shock and awe degrading human life to no more than survival became possible.

Returning to those ‘innocent’ voices – the very personal recorded on scraps of postcards, diaries, BBC recordings and in private memoirs – is a powerful lesson for our time. The focus on the individual offers a corrective to our century, one typified by the valueless human being.

For this reason alone, A Broken World is recommended reading. But then there is the simple power of the words.

The anthology is cleverly divided into four themes that shifts from the distant experience, to the thick of it, to displacement, to loss. Personalities from all sides and classes feature, providing a rewarding richness, which enlightens and activates a history we thought we knew.

A short, factual note may mask the writer’s emotional truth, but as readers we are left in no uncertainty. Letters expose the most intimate of relationships; facts (the date, place) record how war blasted them away. Filled in by various ghost voices, small dramas play out, yet remain ever so individual, colourful. Feelings simmers in the simplest words and the briefest narratives.

Read the final entry in the poet Edward Thomas’ diary, the day before he was killed. Then return to his wife Helen’s description of their last hours together and her farewell. “I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death.”

In Hermanus, where Stuart Cloete wrote and walked, two ancient guns guard the war memorial at the Old Harbour. The words from this fine publication break their silence ignorance.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times on 11 September 2014.

COLUMN: Nostalgia

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nostalgia img

Nostalgia’s come a long way.

It used to be classified as a medical condition (though doubtful in the same category as tuberculosis) and comes from words meaning “homecoming ache”.

There’s not been much scientific investigation into nostalgia, but some evidence from different academic studies elevates it from a mooning melancholic state to something that has an important psychological function.

Nostalgia is believed, for instance, to affirm one’s sense of self and increase your social connectedness. It can lift your mood and self-esteem, and help frame meaning. Interestingly, in one study, people who dwelt fondly on past memories had an increased perception of physical warmth.

A certain slant of light reminds you of the smells of childhood suppers. The cooing of doves in the late afternoon can become the queasy reminder of quiet Sundays that heralded the beginning of another boarding school week. And a scent can spiral you right back to swirly ice-creams at the beach in Durban in 1979, or the conflicting loneliness and joy of being in Paris by yourself in 1998.

Place is central to nostalgia. Our memories are often linked to emotion and place simultaneously – like a feeling of powerlessness linked to the shape of the front gate beyond which you were not allowed to venture alone, or the feeling of safety linked to the floral patterns of a grandmother’s curtains.

Good travel writing evokes nostalgia without being overtly nostalgic. If the writer has succeeded in transporting the reader, he or she makes one long for a place that is foreign but feels vicariously familiar.

Apart from the fiction I read this month – each novel with a strong sense of place (Tuscany, Miami, New York) – I also read two non-fiction books that made me aware of how we place ourselves geographically as part of the project of understanding the roads that have lead to our current selves.

The first book was Mark Gevisser’s Lost and Found in Johannesburg. It is a memoir, mapped along the streets and rivers, the cemeteries, “locations” and mine dumps, the forests and green lungs, of the city of Johannesburg.

It is a looping, thorough, generous work that avoids solipsism by providing greater historical and social contexts for Gevisser’s own life events and mental shifts as he grew up in the city. It is an expansive work: evocative and instructive. It’s a love song to urban spaces and the way in which places makes us, the way in which we project on to them, and they reflects us back to ourselves. The way they mould our creative, relational and intellectual endeavours.

The book made me seek out a travel book that has been recommended to me from time to time, but suddenly felt urgent to read: Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines.

“Songlines” are tracks across Australia mapped out through indigenous people’s songs and stories. They are a kind of oral cartography of the landscape, a way in which itinerant people were able to find their way, while roaming, using landmarks noted in song.

This wasn’t an easy concept for me to get my head around and I expected the first few pages to set it all out neatly for me, to define songlines in a way that made sense to me as a white person with a modern Western education in the Christian tradition. Soon, however, how exactly the songlines worked became secondary as Chatwin himself moulded the Australian outback for me, recreating the sullen heat, the chilling racism and the merciless countryside through his own brand of observational narrative journalism.

The unexpected and unusual joy of the book were the sections in which he transcribes parts of his previous travel journals – entries of varying length linking Western literature, indigenous art, archaeology, poetry and storytelling, and hunting and foraging, with various nomadic traditions.

I’m a homebody mostly. Writers like Gevisser and Chatwin give me rambler’s heart. They give me a homecoming ache.

COLUMN: Reading Elite

reading

readering

If there is a heap of research that shows that people who read fiction have all kinds of advantages in just about every sphere of life over those who do not, is it elitist to say that readers are the best people?

Well, if you put it like that, it sounds terribly crude.

A website which claims to be the voice of Generation Y recently ran an article with the headline “Why Readers, Scientifically, Are The Best People To Fall In Love With”.

Another, on a similar topic, wrote “Reading literature makes us smarter and nicer”.

This sort of unequivocal headline is highly effective at reeling in readers, pushing up hit rates on websites and getting shares on social media.

Both articles, to lesser and greater degrees respectively, parade – in summarised fashion – the sexiest bits of scientific research into the advantages of reading.

Reading fiction really is believed to make people more empathetic, more questioning, more understanding and have a greater ability to try and see things from different points of view, while it also increases their vocabulary, memory skills and ability to spot patterns.

The words like “smarter” and “nicer” and “best” are backed up with references and explanations of, and links to, many of the studies. But they’re catchy, journalistic words which I doubt the scientists themselves would have used.

And boy, did those words get some people hot under the collar!

The tone of the first article was called snarky and sarcastic, and the idea that readers were better, obnoxious and self-righteous.

These were words used by people who were clearly educated and erudite, and many of them confessed to being avid readers themselves. But an article summing up reading’s many merits got them rather cross.

Which is why I keep wondering whether the culture of reading has been hijacked by the intellectual elite to the degree that proclaiming reading’s advantages is politically incorrect.

Is it?

I don’t have the answer. But if it is yes, that’s cause for despair. I may not, like Nick Cave, believe in an interventionist God, but I believe in reading.

Over and over and over again I have heard and read stories about awkward, lonely, impoverished, abused or neglected children who found solace and succour at the library. I believe in reading because so many children’s lives have been redeemed by story books.

I meet successful, rich people every day, but they are not all created equal. I believe in reading because it bestows grace, humility and wisdom that success and money on their own do not bring.

I believe in reading because children who are read to perform better all round at school, and because a solid, equal education is the only hopeful starting point in an unjust society.

I believe in reading because many of my friends and colleagues who were once bullied by their peers or terrorised by their parents survived because they could turn to books.

I believe in reading so much that if I could, I would make it a constitutional law that every child must be read stories from their first months.

I’ve read the studies over the years to back up my belief. Still, my belief stems not from those, but from my experience – however narrow, unscientific and anecdotal – of how transformative it is for a person to read a story that resonates inside them with thundering and almost overwhelming power.

I believe in reading.

Is that elitist?