What a privilege last night to hear Shami Chakrabarti on the power and importance of reading. And how moving that she dedicated the lecture to her late mother, who instilled in her a passion for the written word.
Chakrabarti is of course Director of Liberty, and her speech was about reading in the context of human rights. ‘When even our Human Rights Act is threatened, reading, thinking and arguing about abuses of power have rarely been more essential to protecting precious freedoms.’ Reading is vital. It supports empathy in a way modern politics often fails to, she told us. To understand the plight of Syrian refugees, what better than to read Auden’s Refugee Blues or Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy.
‘As a recovering lawyer,’ she said, ‘I have always known the power of great story-telling, whether of the factual or non-factual variety of truth-telling, in moving people.’ To Kill a Mockingbird had a huge influence on her. It was the catalyst for her decision to enter the legal profession. She quoted from it and Go Set a Watchman to highlight the ills of bigotry and prejudice. She read us part of Noble Conflict by Malorie Blackman in reference to the perils of a surveillance state. (I was impressed with her knowledge of teenage fiction, and her valuing of contemporary dystopian YA writing for raising important issues, and pleased too that for all her love of great literature – we heard rousing extracts from Shelley – she is in no way po-faced. Anything that gets young people into reading is valuable. Young people should read whatever they want, for themselves, and not restrict themselves to the books on the curriculum, she insisted.)
It was surely no coincidence that Chakrabarti spoke of libraries and freedom of expression together. ‘Libraries should be free and open and books must be saved from the fire every time. Debates, however shocking, difficult and painful, must be had.’
She urged us all not to give flowers and chocolates as Christmas presents, but books. ‘Reading is the gift that keeps on giving. Books deliver knowledge, insight, entertainment and solace.’ For me, one of the most memorable sentences of the evening was this one: ‘Reading can bring the breeze of hope on an individual level, and on the collective level, a wind of change.’
There was a question at the end of the lecture about positive discrimination and tokenism. Chakrabarti said experience had changed her views. ‘We have to speed up history.’ She sees herself ‘not so much a token as a beacon’. A beacon she certainly is. I can’t wait to read her book.