Reading is an Ecological Act

Kevan Manwaring

(UK)

The quiet, gentle, sometimes solitary but never lonely act of reading is one of the most radical actions one can take in the modern age. It is self-reflective, meditative even, as one sits in peaceful absorption. 

Socrates told us that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. The affordances of reading create a space where the examined life can happen – whether through the windows and mirrors of fiction and poetry, a thought-provoking essay or article, the life story of an inspiring figure, a sobering account of a real-life event, or (of course) through the smeuses and refugia of new nature writing. Reading is radical because, in a ‘post truth’ age of information wars, fake news, deep fakes, and the sound and fury of social media, formulating one’s own opinion against the din of the herd, and honing critical thinking skills, is a quiet act of defiance, and perhaps the only conscionable choice for anyone with a lively, enquiring intelligence and a robust personal integrity. 

Yet, beyond this, the act of reading is inherently ecological for a number of reasons. In terms of materiality, reading a printed book (at least one created with wood pulp from a sustainable source, as most books are these days thanks to the Forest Stewardship Council) is an activity with a low carbon footprint, unless you are doing it while cruising on your private jet or aboard a luxury yacht – which 99% of us won’t be doing. For a brief while you are no longer consuming. Of course, the purchase of a book requires partaking in the capitalist system, unless it was gifted, shoplifted, or recycled – but by purchasing from book sites such as Hive (which donates some of the transaction to a local independent bookstore of your choice), or by browsing via Ecosia (which plants a tree for each search), you can have a positive impact on your local community and wider environment. Reading on an electronic device is a different matter – in terms of the carbon footprint of a phone, tablet, laptop, or e-reader – but again these devices can be second-hand, borrowed, or on loan from a library. 

Digital poverty is rarely discussed, and many people assume everyone has access to such tools, and to the internet – but this is a ‘First World’ assumption. And it also assumes universal digital literacy. Yet even amongst those who are digital native – or digital adopters i.e. Boomers, Generation X, etc – there are a growing number of people who choose to go analogue, e.g., by reading a printed book, rather than a pdf on a connected device. This offline culture is manifesting in such diverse cultural initiatives as: Independent Record Store Day and its promotion of vinyl records, immersive theatre experiences, the surge in table-top roleplaying games, re-enactment societies, Live Action Role Playing and cosplay, and the rise in popularity of zines and analogue publishers such as Analog Sea, who publish beautiful hardcover anthologies and only distribute through the ecosystem of independent bookshops. 

Jonathan Simmons, the publisher of Analog Sea advocates in his editorial vision, ‘…the human right to disconnect.’ He wishes to celebrate the works created by the spaciousness that affords, ‘…that vital stretch of time when distraction fades and deep wells of thought and feeling emerges.’ Simmons’ desire to ‘maintain a contemplative life in the digital age’, is one by shared by many, even, encouragingly, an increasing number of young people who choose to hold analogue meetups and own non-smart phones. 

Reading is ecological in phenomenological ways too – our breathing slows, our posture relaxes, our hands quietly turn the rustling leaves of the pages, our fingers feeling the fibre of the paper; noses picking up the faint scent of ink, the musty smell of an old binding or the fresh aroma of a new book, and, for a while, we become hyper-focused on the flesh of language itself. Then, pausing perhaps at the end of a section or chapter, we look up and our immediate environment is enhanced by this heightened perception – be it in a civic park, by a river, on a beach, or in a public library, café, or station. We may notice things we didn’t before. If we have been reading what is called ‘ecofiction’, these may be things to do with our natural environment, our connection, and impact. Birdsong may seem sharper and sweeter, the colours of flowers brighter, the shapes, textures and patterns of trees more fascinating. We may notice ‘weeds’ in the cracks of the pavement, mosses on the wall of an old building or beneath a public drinking fountain, a bird of prey nesting in the heights of the skyline, an urban fox scavenging amongst the bins, or even the behaviour of the human animal: its feeding and mating habits, territorial displays, and nesting instincts. 

Reading is not only a cognitive act, but also a sensory, embodied act. We are using the senses that have evolved through millions of years to enable us to interact with our environment and each other. Senses that connect us to the natural world, to our animal self. With our remarkably developed brains we can decode the forest of text and find meaning within it, in the way that any animal adapted to its environment can interpret a multitude of complex signs and signals (as the latest scientific research into biosemiotics suggests). Ursula K. Le Guin emphasises this extraordinary ability: ‘The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.’ 

Reading may seem to some to be an indulgence, a distraction from the multiple challenges we face, but incrementally I believe it does make a difference. If people read (and thus contemplated) more and consumed less, stayed still and peaceful for a longer, cultivated skills of reflection and discernment, immersed themselves in paradigms other than their own, walking in another person’s moccasins through the lens of fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction, then I think the world would be better place. It doesn’t replace all the things we still need to do to counter the Climate Crisis and other attendant issues, but it can equip us to deal with them better – not least through the benefits to our wellbeing, resilience, and emotional and intellectual capacity that the act of reading gives us. The Japanese concept of Shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’ has gained attention in recent years, but I argue that ‘book bathing’ has similar benefits. Spend some time wandering in the wood of words, and then experience the world with refreshed perception and a greater appreciation of its miraculous actuality. 

Kevan Manwaring 

24th March 2024

This creative writing textbook introduces students to ecofiction: narrative writing that focuses on the environment. Also known as ‘climate fiction’ or ‘cli-fi’, an increasing number of short story writers, novelists and pioneers of emerging forms such as interactive fiction are taking up the call to develop their own creative responses to the climate crisis. This guide explores a cross-section of genres and ways of writing about our world, as well as the ethical and technical challenges involved. It offers a discussion of classic and contemporary texts, literary criticism and creative writing exercises. The book covers a broad range of themes and styles of writing, from works that engage with nature and landscape writing to those that take a more activist approach to climate change. With an awareness of the Global South and the subaltern, the framing of the Anthropocene, wilderness and nature writing is challenged. Each chapter offers a new perspective on ecofiction for the creative writer, with reading suggestions and connections to other writers and texts, and writing activities. Designed for upper-level undergraduate and postgraduate writing modules on the environment, the book is also suitable for independent writers looking to expand their skillset. 

Writing Ecofiction: navigating the challenges of environmental narrative by Kevan Manwaring is published by Palgrave Macmillan Spring 2024 

Kevan Manwaring

is the

New Nature Writing Editor for Panorama.

Dr Kevan Manwaring is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Arts University Bournemouth. A BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers 2022 finalist, he researches Fantasy, ecology, and eco-fiction. He is the convenor of Writing the Earth – an annual programme of events for Earth Day. He is the author of The Bardic Handbook, The Long Woman, Lost Islands, and editor of Heavy Weather: tempestuous tales of stranger climes (The British Library) as well as collections of folk tales for The History Press. He has contributed articles to Writing in Practice, New Writing, and Gothic Nature. He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic.

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