The art of a good story is a mysterious thing, you might even say magical. More than once a good story has reawakened our appetite for reading like we didn’t know was possible. It seems debut author Nicholas Bowling can relate to that feeling.
In December 2011, a friend of mine lent me a copy of Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of The Wind. It is a very, very good book. To say that it changed me is not a particularly striking claim – every book you read changes you, even the bad ones, just a little bit. But this book was particularly important to me, because it reminded me how to read.
I’ve forgotten how to read twice in my life. How to read is perhaps a bit misleading – more why to read, and occasionally what to read. The first time was in my teens, when rollerblading and Nintendo seemed much more important, and for this reason I’m usually overwhelmed with quivering, knuckle-biting shame every time I read interviews with other (i.e. better) writers who spent their formative years devouring books and building up the constitution of lifelong readers. I didn’t read a lot. There are lots of reasons why teenagers forget how to read for pleasure – teenage boys, in particular – and perhaps there are even more reasons nowadays than there were when I was at school. A couple I’ll mention briefly below, but I’d need another article to fully unpack them. Suffice to say, by the time I was 18 I had read none of the Harry Potter series, no Phillip Pullman. I had, however, collected all of the skulltulas in Zelda: Ocarina of Time and my lap times for Bowzer’s Castle were pretty sensational.
It took a superhuman English teacher to remind me how to love words and the things they can do. “How does it make you feel here,” he would say to us when approaching a new text, tapping his head, “and here,” tapping his chest. No one has ever shown me a better, clearer, more succinct way of explaining to children how to get the most from a book or a poem. While my N64 was hardly gathering dust, I was alive to the pleasures of language and literature thanks to him, in a way I hadn’t been before.
During my degree, though, I forgot how to read for a second time. This time it was because I neglected the second half of that mantra. I spent so much time analysing texts, and viewing them through the prism of the weekly essay, that I was reading almost entirely with my head and hardly ever with my heart. Reading for pleasure became a kind of lost art, one that I didn’t even realise I’d lost. I also forgot how to write; or, at least, how to write fiction. It didn’t stop me from trying. I wrote the first chapters of at least three novels in my early 20s, each more cerebral and self-regarding and tedious than the last.
It was Rothfuss’s book that saved me from this wilderness, because for the first time in what felt like decades I fell completely, unthinkingly under the spell of a story. Perhaps I was disarmed by the fact that it was ‘just’ fantasy (bear with me, Pat), so felt I didn’t need to bring any critical faculties to it. I was consumed by it. It was like being 10 years old again, when I read so much Tolkien I started sleepwalking and my parents had to remove the books from my bedroom, literally to stop me from losing my mind.
I also remembered this: reading is – should be, must be – fun.
The Name of the Wind is beyond fun. It is not just a great story. It is a great story about stories and storytelling (so, in actual fact, it does stand up to critical scrutiny alongside any po-faced postmodern novel – it can be read with heart and head). Reading it was an epiphany: a realisation that story is king, and that I had to swear my absolute, unwavering loyalty to it if I ever wanted to write good fiction. And I did want to write fiction, because I had been reminded what an absolute blast it could be. I started on Witchborn almost entirely because of that one book.
Both the first and second time when I forgot how to read, it was because the idea of storytelling was subordinated by other more ‘serious’, less ‘childish’ concerns. In the upper years of school, boys and girls reading fantasy and sci-fi books start getting sideways glances, and curricula make virtually no allowances for creative writing. One of the things my English teacher used to do, at A-level, was to ask for a piece of imaginative writing from us before we even thought about tackling the set text. As part of an Oxford English Literature degree? Forget about it.
But storytelling is the lifeblood of literature, children’s or otherwise. The other half of my degree was in Classics. What is something like the Odyssey, that cornerstone of the Western canon, if not a rollicking good story? In fact, if it were published today it would be termed a fantasy story – a genre that is the slightly embarrassed, stooped, nerdy guest at the cocktail party of serious world literature. And out of that story – not despite, because of the rules and demands of its narrative – there is also plenty of technical and formal wizardry to satisfy the analytical critic. The story gets us here (*taps head*) and here (*taps chest*).
So that’s the truth of it: Pat Rothfuss retaught me – the adult me – how to read, and how to write. And he taught me never to lose sight of the story in anything I do, because, as Skarpi tells us in The Name of the Wind: “All stories are true.”
Witchborn by Nicholas Bowling out now in paperback (Chicken House), read our review here.
About Nicholas Bowling
Nicholas Bowling is a debut novelist author, stand-up comic, musician and Latin teacher from London. He graduated from Oxford University in 2007 with a BA in Classics and English, and again in 2010 with a Masters in Greek and Latin Language and Literature, before moving to his first teaching job at Trinity School, Croydon. While writing Witchborn, he has also performed a solo show at the Edinburgh festival, and has co-written, recorded and released an album and two EPs with soul-folk singer Mary Erskine, Me For Queen.