The unifying power of storytelling enjoyed a moment in the sun last weekend as Norwich inspired an international community of booklovers with a special outdoor reading event.
As part of the City of Literature festival on Saturday, 27 May, the Page Against the Machine event at The Plantation Garden reminded festival-goers of the benefits of making time to read for pleasure.
Page Against the Machine encouraged festival-goers to detox and enjoy the pleasure of reading outside at Plantation Garden in Norwich (Image: Joanna Millington)
Page Against the Machine was created in 2017 by bookseller Joe Hedinger from The Book Hive in response to research from The Reading Agency, which found that 67% of UK adults would like to read more.
The weekly reading event, which encourages participants to set aside an hour of time for quiet reading in the shop, was reimagined for this year’s festival as cities across the world united to detox with the mindful and “rebellious” act of reading.
Page Against the Machine was created by bookseller Joe Hedinger from The Book Hive (Image: Newsquest)
“Nearly two thirds of people said they’d like to turn to a book in times of stress, anxiety or illness,” Joe said. “However, people struggle to find time to read because the demands and distractions of hectic lifestyles get in the way.
“Our idea was to think about reading as a practice. Rather than snatching a few lines before bed or on your commute, what if reading was something you committed regular time to – just like putting an hour aside for the gym, yoga or meditation?”
Simultaneous reading events took place in other UNESCO cities of literature across the globe, including in Leeuwarden, Netherlands (Image: Natalia Balanina)
Presented by the National Centre for Writing (NCW) and Norfolk & Norwich Festival, City of Literature celebrates our rich literary heritage and storytelling culture. As England’s first UNESCO City of Literature, Norwich is part of a global network with a shared mission to inspire community and partnership through writing and reading.
Other UNESCO cities hosted simultaneous reading events in outdoor spaces and libraries, including in Leeuwarden (Netherlands), Slemani (Iraq), Nottingham (UK), Exeter (UK), Melbourne (Australia), Manchester, UK and Kuhmo (Finland).
Norwich is part of the global UNESCO network with a shared mission to inspire community and partnership through writing and reading (Image: Natalia Balanina)
Aino Ainali from Kuhmo UNESCO City of Literature said: “This is a great example of literature’s power to build bridges. We come from different corners of the world, speaking different languages, but on Saturday 27 May we [were] together in spirit – turning pages and diving into books.”
Held at the 15th-century Dragon Hall on King Street and the Spiegeltent at Festival Gardens, the weekend’s other events comprised author interviews, book signings, panel discussions and a publishing fair, as well as creative writing and bookbinding workshops with authors such as Sally O’Reilly, Fiona Mason and Will Harris.
The programme confronted issues like climate change, science, creativity and nature, as well as universal topics like family, grief, friendship and love.
National Centre for Writing head of programmes and engagement Holly Ainley (Image: Holly Ainley / NCW)
The theme of this year’s City of Literature festival explored the power of storytelling to spark conversation.
NCW head of programmes and engagement Holly Ainley said: “The power of reading, writing and literary translation are core to our identity as a city. Storytelling doesn’t just have artistic power, it has social power. It can change minds.
“This weekend is about demonstrating how reading and writing can help to build communities. The power of words can have a really positive impact on our wellbeing, our sense of empathy and our place in our own lives, families and environment.
“Our aim at the National Centre for Writing is to create opportunities and possibilities for you to listen, to learn and to be entertained,” said Holly. “We invite everyone to join the conversation!”
Costa Award-winning author Caleb Azumah Nelson appeared at City of Literature 2023 to discuss his new book (Image: Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books)
On Friday, Costa Award-winning author Caleb Azumah Nelson discussed his second novel, Open Water, alongside Jyoti Patel, whose debut novel The Things That We Lost won the 2021 #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize launched by Stormzy and Penguin Random House.
“One of the things I love most about fiction is how readers can find themselves entirely immersed in worlds that they would otherwise never have access to,” said Jyoti, a graduate of the Creative Writing course at UEA. “You can learn about different lives, different cultures, different times.
“Reading and writing are both pretty solitary ways to spend time, so book clubs, writing groups and literature festivals are such important spaces to build community,” Jyoti added. “Accessibility is crucial for empowerment. Making literature and events like this accessible to as many people as possible is vital.”
UEA graduate and award-winning author Jyoti Patel discussed her new novel The Things That We Lost (Image: Mark Strauss)
On Saturday, poet Amy Key discussed her new memoir Arrangements in Blue: Notes on Love and Making a Life with Sarah Perry. Inspired by Joni Mitchell, the book deconstructs cultural expectations of romantic love and singleness.
“I credit reading with my ability to understand myself and others,” Amy said. “I’ve turned to books to find my feelings, ideas and fears reflected in another person’s world, to be transported into other lives and realities. Reading makes me more curious.
“Literature festivals can help us all exchange ideas and create conversations. They can help us reimagine the world, challenge our assumptions and spark our creativity.”
Poet Amy Key talked about her her book inspired by Joni Mitchell (Image: Amy Key)
An event titled Handle with Care brought together Dr Roopa Farooki and Fiona Mason to tackle themes of health, death, loss and grief. The discussion explored the cathartic power of narratives in helping us deal with difficult subjects and emotions.
“There is firm evidence that the best thing you can do for any child’s mental and physical wellbeing, and for their future, is to teach them a love of reading,” said Roopa.
Dr Roopa Farooki has published a new memoir exploring her experiences while working as a doctor during the pandemic (Image: Roopa Farooki)
She also underscored the importance of reading as a method of sharing someone else’s experiences and walking in their shoes.
“It is how we build empathy and better understand each other,” Roopa said. “I know that being a writer and reader has helped me become more engaged with the political process, which is why I became a councillor. I want to create a safer, cleaner and kinder space for the residents whom I represent.”
Everything is True: A Junior Doctor's Story of Life, Death and Grief by Roopa Farooki is published by Bloomsbury (Image: Courtesy of Bloomsbury)
Fiona agreed that arts and literature events deepen our understanding of society.
“The world faces terrific challenges,” Fiona said. “We each bear a responsibility to inform ourselves rather than rely on the received opinion of others. Literacy is critical for democracy, empowering the individual to read widely, do their own research, ask questions and think independently.
“Reading widely means you’re less likely to have the wool pulled over your eyes,” she added. “That can only be good for democracy and for boldly facing the challenges ahead.”
The Guardian’s chief culture writer Charlotte Higgins delivered this year's Harriet Martineau Lecture (Image: David Lavene)
Each year, a keynote speech honours the legacy of Harriet Martineau, a Norwich native and the world’s first female journalist who championed progressive values such as economic fairness, racial equality, women’s rights and justice.
This year’s Harriet Martineau Lecture was delivered by the Guardian’s chief culture writer Charlotte Higgins. She explored the importance of cultural reporting as a way of understanding the world, including her recent reporting from the war in Ukraine.
Charlotte said that the potency of literature is in its ability to expose that which lies beyond our field of vision. It can broaden our imagination and help us find new ways to express our own stories, all while revelling in “the dance of language”.
“Reading doesn’t put food on the table or pay the heating bills – at least in the short term,” Charlotte said. “But a crucial part of making political change is imagining different and better worlds – and that’s something literature really can help with.”