Monday Motivation: Machines for thinking

 In All About Writing

Book festivals are taking over the world – or at least limited patches of it. James Naughtie, who helms a number of book programmes for the BBC, was present at the Hay Festival to open the Beeb’s coverage of this annual litfest.

He gave a short speech which I’ve transcribed, and bits of which I’d like to share with you, together with a few thoughts on the effects of reading books on people and the world.

He kicked off his mini-oration with an allusion to what seem to be the dark times we’re living through:

“Just thinking about book festivals on this cold and rather misty Saturday morning where the car park is undulating in mud, not for the first time in our memory, but your faces in the tent, insofar as I can see them in the dark, are all so bright, looking towards what is going to be the coming son later today, in hope…”

He reflected on the proliferation of book festivals in Britain, which now number some 150, “insinuating themselves into cities, transforming little towns, squatting on village greens or even on just a friendly farmer’s field.”

He hypothesised that these events, which attract hundreds of thousands of people every year, have flourished as more traditional community gatherings at the village well or in the town square have withered and died.

People, he argued, are drawn to book festivals in search of “discovery, a flash of the unexpected.” They relish a “challenge to (their) own views and, dare I use the good old word, enlightenment. People come, mostly, not to be reassured, but to open their minds.”

These views are, of course, uncontroversial – but we forget sometimes that precisely the same arguments apply to books, and to reading. We go to books in order to have our own experience of the world challenged and, in the process, broadened. We go to books to share experiences that we would never have ourselves, to immerse ourselves in worlds different – and sometimes radically different – from our own.

But we also go to books to expand our minds. I.A. Richards, the influential literary critic of the mid-twentieth century, said that “(a) book is a machine to think with.”

That’s a wonderful insight. Just as the internet has become a machine to remember with, so books are partners in our continual struggle to wring meaning from the apparently random events of which most lives are composed.

So when you next pick up the book you’ve been engrossed in, dwell for a moment on that thought: that what you hold in your hands is a window, opening not just onto fairy fields forlorn – but into realms of thought, feeling and imagination that can only expand your own.

Happy writing,


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