Last year the Dorothy Dunnett Society had a very successful debate on theme of History: Fact and Fantasy with three writers and an historian. The University of Dundee invited us back this year to discuss Effects of reading on mental health, cognition and memory, and why ‘the creation of rich new worlds, whether rooted in history or fantasy, is so important in most people’s lives’.
On our panel was Simon Hedges, a past chairman of the society, who has organized several international Dunnett Gatherings; and Julia Hart who is a long-time member and contributor to our magazine Whispering Gallery. Julia was a teacher of English Literature, and is now an ordained priest of the Church of England. We were particularly privileged to have as our special guests Trevor Harley, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Dundee University with recently published research into the effects of language impairments in dementia and Parkinson’s disease; and Stuart Kelly the well known critic and author. Stuart reviews books for a number of newspapers and appears on BBC radio Scotland’s book programmes, and has been a judge for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. He is also reader in residence for Edinburgh Napier University’s Creative Writing MA.
With this particular panel we expected a lively and enlightening debate – and the discussion exceeded our expectations! Trevor Harley said that reading was a form of mental exercise; he stressed the importance of reading fiction. Acts of imagination were particularly important: parts of the brain can be seen to light up when reading fiction. He also stressed the benefits of book groups. It is a social activity which shares insight and which can stave off cognitive ageing. The audience found Professor Harley’s contribution fascinating.
Stuart Kelly made some stimulating comments, pointing out how we consume reading compared to other works of art like painting or a symphony; we rarely consume a novel in ‘one go’. How does one interpret our ongoing reading of the novel? How do we create a balance of detail and ambiguity? Julia remarked on the distinction between readers who identify with the characters and readers who think of themselves as associates, possibly friends. Simon chaired the event with wit and wisdom and also remarked that some readers hated the character of Austen Grey [Lymond Chronicles] without examining his motivations, but often discussions and on-line debate tended to moderate views.
The audience in the crowded room – we were promoted to the big theatre – were clearly enthralled, and the enthusiastic show of hands for questions was evidence of how stimulating the audience found the speakers. Many in the audience approached Dorothy Dunnett Society members to tell them how much they enjoyed the discussion, and remarked on how much they had learned.
Many thanks to the Dundee team of Barbara Milner, Ann Auchterlonie and Pam Keeling for their hard work and imagination in organizing this event. Great support was given to the Society by the University of Dundee, and it is our hope that the Dunnett Debate will be an annual fixture.
Stuart Kelly is the author of Scott-land: the man who invented a nation. He is currently working on a book on religion.
Professor Trevor Harley’s textbook ‘The Psychology of Language’ (fourth edition) will soon be available.
The Dorothy Dunnett Society