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28 Feb 2020

Alex Hems: Head's Blog February 28 2020

Alex Hems, Head of St George's School for GirlsWorld Book Day

The fact that next Thursday is World Book Day seems like an excellent excuse to write about one of my favourite subjects, reading. I imagine I am not alone in looking forward to the publication next month of The Mirror and the Light, the long-awaited conclusion to Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. I know that reading it will be a ‘full immersion’ experience and that is certainly one of the joys of reading for me – the window that fiction offers, not only into other times but also into other, entirely different outlooks on life. In an interview in this week’s Sunday Times Magazine Mantel is quoted as saying, ‘Novels teach you about all sorts of circumstances in the bigger world that you might encounter or states you might pass through. I don’t mean they formed a guide to conduct, but a guide to the complexities of life.’  We can surely all benefit from that sort of guide. Apart from the sheer beauty of elegant prose and the well chosen word, novels have shown me a myriad of possible ways of living, of negotiating human existence, which have been immensely enriching; they have become part of the fabric of my makeup, an essential element in my interpretation of what I see and experience. Great literature broadens our emotional vocabulary, raising possibilities and shedding new light on our own perceptions.  As well as alerting the young reader to the possibility of ‘the other’, fiction also allows us to recognise familiar, shared human experience in lives lived, perhaps many centuries ago, or on another continent. Professor Richard Hoggart, critic of twentieth century culture and society, described the capacity that literature has to ‘help re-create, inwardly, that shared sense of being human without which our world would truly be a wilderness, a chaos.'

These two qualities of good fiction seem to me to be of inestimable value in any education and in a life well lived. I am grateful to my mother, who persuaded our local library to give me a card when I was officially too young to join, to many sympathetic librarians, and to my Godmother and various other adults who introduced me in turn to Winnie the Pooh, Paddington, Jennings, the Fossil sisters, Jane Marple, Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Elliot, Bertie Wooster, Harriet Vane and all the citizens of George Eliot’s fictional Middlemarch – all great friends to this day. Reading with our children remains one of the finest ways to support the early stages of their education, and as they grow older, to generate discussion and cover sensitive subjects. Exposing children to well written and challenging prose, by reading it aloud to them, is an excellent way to equip them to engage with more complex text themselves, and to broaden their vocabularies and comprehension. It can also be a huge pleasure, a chance to re-visit old favourites and to find some new ones, and to share special time together. As adults we can also be reading role-models; it is important that our children see us reading and know that it matters to us. I recently received a reading subscription for my birthday, from a wonderful bookshop, Mr B’s Emporium, which I cannot recommend highly enough. After filling in a very detailed questionnaire about my reading habits and preferences, which was fun in itself, I have now received one, beautifully wrapped and thoughtfully chosen book, and will receive two more over the next two months. What a wonderful gift. I would probably never have come across I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia but thoroughly enjoyed its quirky, distinctly cinematic race around 1930s Vienna. I have no idea what will come next, but I am sure it will be worth reading.

I know that there will be a great deal going on in the libraries at school next week; I hope that plenty of girls will visit the pop-up book shop in the Lower School that will be there until 2nd March and might find new fictional friends there who remain in their lives forever, enriching them, growing with them, and maybe challenging them, as all good friends should.

Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh

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