What is one to do when one invites a bookish sort of chap to talk about books and he admits he doesn't have the patience to read fiction? That was the quandary facing the Story Museum this evening when the comedian, writer, actor and presenter Griff Rhys Jones turned up and announced, against a backdrop devoted to preserving and inspiring the imagination, that these days, his preference is for reality over invention.
This was the first of a brand new series of events in which Nicolette Jones (Sunday Times children's literary editor) interviews various celebrated figures about the books and stories that have stayed with them throughout their lives, and, as all good talks should, it got me thinking: in our appreciation of writing, is there any difference between a story that is made up, and one that is not? For Jones, and for me, the purpose of reading is not to be entertained, but to be taken on a journey – a journey on which we can learn, feel understood, and be changed (hopefully, for the better). After a lifetime of enjoying books of all kinds (his homes are furnished with them), it seems Jones today is at a place where a fantastical story is made all the more extraordinary by the fact that it actually happened.
Jones is known for his documentary on Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, and he discussed a current project involving the works of Beatrix Potter, but he explained that these authors passed him by as a child. Instead, he devoured C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia in the same way that his children gorged on the Harry Potter series – finishing one and being hungry for the next, with part of the satisfaction coming from knowing that you were going to be able to consume more. As a young adult, he was delighted to come across the humorous works of journalist Michael Green (The Art of Coarse Acting and The Art of Coarse Rugby). However, it was only when Jones started to speak of his later reading experiences and discovery of travel writing (particularly Norman Lewis and Paul Theroux) that we could see a present and feisty enthusiasm erupt. Jones seems to relish a writer's ability to convey just how extraordinary human existence can be – a good writer can convey the significance of even the most seemingly banal experiences (such as having to gaze at hundreds of miles of unvarying landscape on a seemingly endless train journey).
Today, one cannot go to an event about books and reading without mention of Kindle (a word almost whispered for fear of causing offence). For Jones, the device offers a welcome alternative to lugging suitcases of books on his travel adventures, and he explained how the platform enabled him to access interesting personal travel accounts from unknown self-published writers. I am an avid reader yet there are next to no books in my house (this is because I read Marie Kondo's hit book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying and threw them all out). I don't miss them – the books I had on display were carefully selected – a lie, of sorts – and once read, never opened again. Personal libraries are no longer necessary because through technology, we have at our fingertips more words of fact, fiction and faction than we could ever have dreamed possible. It's overwhelming, and it's very, very exciting.
So, what book would Jones recommend we all read? In his witty, endearing and earnest manner, Jones' suggested Rod Stewart's autobiography. I'm game.