“I’ve never been in here before,” said Jules about Central Library. “It is completely overwhelming.” Despite being a resident of Manchester for eighteen years, it’s not really surprising as reading has never been one of her favourite things to do.
An undiagnosed dyslexic at school in the 1980s she was bullied by her fellow class-mates.
“School was pretty harsh. I was dragged out of the classroom for special lessons and the other kids used to call me all sorts of names. I used to hate standing up in class to read out loud. I didn’t know what words look like so I didn’t know what they meant and I used to get laughed at, it was horrible really. Books are not my thing and libraries are scare me.”
So it was no mean feat when Jules walked in to the spiffy £50m newly refurbed library for the Everything Everything curated Chaos to Order Live Library experience. Along with two hundred other audience members she was about to be part to of an interactive literary event called The Reading Room.
Inside this room twenty-eight desks with twenty-eight readers reading twenty-eight texts awaited. The readers are ordinary folk from all walks of Mancunian life who, under the gentle firm direction of Quarantine’s Richard Gregory, prepare to share stories, poems, books, words in any form that have helped shaped their lives.
High above everyone, a message presses down from the Book of Proverbs etched in a thin gold headband running around the dome wall:
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her and she shall promote thee; she shall bring thee to honour when thou dost embrace her, she shall give of thine head an ornament of grace, a crown of glory she shall deliver to thee.
I am sat at one of these long tables, have been for twenty minutes scribbling out memories of every book I have ever read. Pieces of white A4 paper with loose inconsistent handwriting spread haphazardly on the desktop:
Annie Proux: Brokeback Mountain – I saw the film first always a mistake.
Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar – This book is about a woman called Ester who is depressed.
Enid Blyton: Five Go To Kirren Island – I was unknowingly drawn to George the tomboy.
Alice Walker: The Color Purple – God, rape and incest all on the first page.
Douglas Coupland: Generation X – Gave us loads of names for new things like McJob.
Hunter S.Thompson: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
Robert Tressell: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – It’s about a man who works on a building site 100 years ago. He thinks differently like you know the rich shouldn’t be so rich and wealth should be shared.
Mary Wesley – I can’t remember the title let alone the book. All I know is an old school friend and I read it to each other on holiday after our A-levels.
“This is the lesbian table by the looks,” says someone sitting down and picking up a piece of paper.
“I’m not,” says my Dad.
“Well you made one so that makes you an honorary one,” says someone else.
Twelve hungry faces huddle in. Jules, with her 1950s movie star handsomeness, sits down opposite me. I ask questions like: Who taught you to read? Can you name a book that made you laugh? Who is your favourite writer? Who is your favourite fictional character? Who first read to you?
Jules says laughing: “I first moved to Manchester when I was twenty-two and my partner got me into reading. She used to read The Famous Five out loud when we were going to sleep which was really great and she did all the funny voices like ’Oh Timmy’ and made it really interesting.”
Agreeable murmurs cocooned the table.
“Yes being read to is wonderful.”
“Oh I love being read to.”
“It’s so intimate.”
“The best, it’s incredible.”
“Why is it so nice?”
“Perhaps because your parents read to you when you were little?”
I asked them if they would like to be read to now? And the faces, some familiar some strange, glowed wide-eyed as they leant forward under the canopy into the soft oblong light.
Holding open my favourite book at the first page I began to read:
The lunch hour in the co-workers’ cafeteria at Frankenberg’s had reached its peak.
I got through four or five pages before stopping to explain why Carol by Patricia Highsmith is as much a part as the colour of my eyes.
I gave them the facts:
The book was published in 1952.
Under the pseudonym Clare Morgan.
And with a different title: The Price of Salt.
It got banned because of the ‘shocking’ subject matter – two women falling in love.
I gave them the feel. Love overcomes anxiety.
I gave them my literary heart: In this book no letter is wasted, every word means what is says and the sentences, oh those short sweet cupid arrow sentences, fly across each page as if on fresh snow. You know?
“No,” said Jules. “When I read words in my head it’s like they’ve got spikes and they’re all prickly and quite awful like barbed wire.”
Intrigued by Jules’s opposite experience of reading we chatted some more after the event.
“Oh you lonely duck.”
“Oh you lonely duck?”
“O. U. L. D. Oh you lonely duck. You should’ve gone home, you would’ve gone home and you could’ve gone home. We were taught to spell things out like this.” She held up her hands like two index finger guns pointing at each other so the left thumb was b and the right thumb d. “Bed,” she said.
These days being dyslexic is something Jules has more or less come to terms with. She gets by, and it has, she says, been pivotal in her becoming a freelance photographer.
“It was a big change in my life. In my HND I had to write a 5,000 word essay and wanted to write about heroin chic – that was the trend back then – but I didn’t know where to get the words out of my brain and onto the paper. I knew what I wanted to say I couldn’t physically do it. I didn’t submit anything and I still got a merit because of my pictures.”
“I guess it makes sense that your visual language would make up for the lack of literal,” I said.
“Some books I can get into because they are so visual. I can see the book in my head like the Harry Potters they make me feel like I am really there.”
“Never read them,” I said too quickly then added, “I could learn a thing or two off JK. What is it that’s in those books that speaks to everyone?”
“They’re easy to read,” replied Jules, and she made her point wisely.
Desk HA Glyn Treharne: Extract from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and a Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens | Desk A Joan Horan: Lyrics for Giving Up, a song by Holly Williams | Desk B Nikki Smith: Extract from Carol by Patricia Highsmith | Desk C Sean McGlynn: Song titles from the album The Real Johnny Cash, The Ultimate Johnny Cash Collection | Desk D Miranda Wade: Umbrella, a poem by Taro Yashima and an extract from The Beach by Alex Garland | Desk E Liam Byrne: Extract from Walter Lippman’s political science book Public Opinion | Desk F Jason Crouch: Extract from computer operating manual, An Introduction to the Commodore Amiga 500 | Desk G Tim Cort: Extract from Chief Seattle’s 1854 oration speech concerning concession of native lands to the settlers | Desk H Maureen Stirpe: The Stolen Child a poem by W.B.Yeats | Desk J Claire Andrews: Extract from East of Eden by John Steinbeck | Desk K Libby Edwards: Guess How Much I Love You, a book for children by Sam McBratney | Desk L Ali Wilson: Sea Fever a poem by John Masefield | Desk M Elaine McCann: The Colour of Wednesday, an article about synaesthesia by Valerie Thornton | Desk N Alan Entwistle: Extract from Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh | Desk O Miriam Wild: Easy Rhymes A.K.A. Cheap Shots, Royal Shit, Small Times, poems and lyrics by Michael Conroy | Desk P Glenys Mercer: The Life That I Have, a poem by Leo Marks used as code in Second World War | Desk PA Cristina Delgado Garcia: Extracts from Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence by Judith Butler and We Are All Very Anxious, an article by Precarious Consciousness | Desk Q Niamh Horan: Extract from The Folk of the Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton | Desk R Rosie Adam-Clark: How Do I Love Thee a poem by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and Tales of Love an analysis of narcissism and idealisation by Julia Kristeva | Desk S Scarlette Barber: Extract from when Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr | Desk T Les Kinsey: What Do You See? A poem by Phyllis McCormack/anonymous | Desk U Anne Marie Seymour: Extract from Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah | Desk V Mark Donnelly: Mid-Term Break a poem by Seamus Heaney | Desk W Jacqueline Hall: Extract from Fight Club by Chuck Palahnuik | Desk X Maureen Horrop: Desiderata a prose poem by Max Ehrmann and If a poem by Rudyard Kipling | Desk Y Brenda Hickey: Extract from Churchill – The Great Leader author unknown | Desk Z Amy Liptrott: Extract from If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor | Desk ZA Anne Rua: An Irish Airman Forsees His Death a poem by William Butler Yeats | Everyone: Extracts from A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel.