by Lyn Gardner
Review of Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine, Fierce Festival, March-April 2012, Birmingham.
In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, books are considered so dangerous that they are banned and burned. So people find another way to preserve them: they undertake to learn them by heart. The people of Birmingham have been memorising novels: over the next week you can go to the library, select a human book and read it as part of the Fierce festival.
The book I chose was Natsume Soseki's 1905 Japanese classic I am a Cat, a wry observation on the nature of humanity seen through feline eyes. The human book smiled at me, took me to a corner in the library where we sat down together, and then I read her. Or rather, she started to recite the book to me from memory.
It is a curious experience; not the same as being read to, but similarly pleasurable. The piece is as much about the act of memory itself as it is about the story – about effort. The human books do not perform in any way, but neither are they completely neutral, because they cannot help but imprint themselves on the book, almost as surely as the writer, in every cough and hesitation, and in the second-by-second struggle to remember, the ever-present possibility of forgetting.
There are other fascinating things, too: the way the human book makes all the other unopened books leaning drunkenly against each other on the library shelves seem somehow dead, and how subversive it feels in the traditional quiet of the library to have the silence broken by the books themselves. It makes you wonder if, after dark, Wuthering Heights comes out to debate and argue with Brideshead Revisited. It makes you look at books as living things, and is a good reminder that when you learn a book by heart, it is not just a feat of memory, but an act of love.
Article published online in guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 3 April 2012