Joan Bakewell: 'What I said about anorexia was woefully inadequate' 

Joan Bakewell was criticised for her comments on anorexia this week. 
Dame Joan Bakewell was criticised for her comments on anorexia this week.  Credit: Julian Andrews

Books – after people – are probably my life’s perpetual and continuing joy. But last week, in talking to a Sunday newspaper about a book prize I have been judging, I was drawn into a speculative conversation on the topic of anorexia. I voiced ideas that were my own, but woefully inadequate. People have been quick to point that out.

Naively, perhaps, I was speaking off the cuff. Equally naively, I did so without reference to evidence or current thinking, and suggested the eating disorder could be about narcissism. My words  - which I confess I had not expected to see in print - were seized on.

On Sunday morning I awoke to a flurry of responses on Twitter, almost all of which criticised my remarks. I had, it turned out, unwittingly caused enormous upset, for which I felt deeply sorry.

Bakewell caused a stir at the weekend when she described anorexia as being a sign of narcissism in society. Credit: Clara Molden

“Vanity it wasn’t,” wrote one woman of her own eating disorder. “Not helpful,” wrote another on the subject of my comments. “It’s not about ego at all, it’s about a lack of confidence,” a third tweeter reprimanded me.

I spent much of the day engaging with these people and others, responding directly to their concerns.

Quite clearly I could  learn more about this illness.  After all,  it’s books that can give us insight. Luckily there are plenty out there, not just on this illness but on all aspects of mental and physical health. And not just in the self-help sections of our bookshops. The Wellcome Book Prize, whose judging panel I am chairing, is testament to this.

The £30,000 award goes to the book that most effectively celebrates an aspect of medicine, health or illness. It began in 2009 and the range of submissions and winners has proved impressively wide. The idea is to reward books that extend our understanding of ourselves: the way our bodies and our minds interact, the responses we have to pressures on our own situations.

The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

There are plenty of ways for good writers to open up what is increasingly a source of interesting reading and at the same time familiarise the public with issues that have importance in public life.

Recent winners have been The Iceberg, Marion Coutts’ unflinching account of the illness and death of her husband, art critic Tom Lubbock, and Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon, which explored the innumerable ways parents deal with exceptional children. Both have proved hugely popular. 

There is a great appetite to learn about the lives of others as a way of understanding our own. For books are not an escape: they are a way into innumerable worlds that exist alongside my own, and a way of knowing the many different people who express themselves in writing.

They can offer an understanding of the struggles of others that perhaps can’t be found elsewhere - as I found out this week.

The end of the book has long been predicted: the internet, social media, the Kindle have all been invoked as likely to inflict the final coup de grace.

It isn’t happening. I even suspect that if times went backward, our electronic times would hail as a breakthrough a new form, a form of reading made up of single pages of paper neatly bound that can survive being dropped in the bath, can go anywhere, furnish presents for the most wayward relations and above all don’t need batteries and constantly recharging.

My house is full of books. That’s not to say I have any kind of neat and ordered library. I just have books in every room. I have even had to put shelves in the bathroom: they reach to the ceiling and loom over the bath. This is where I keep poetry, anthologies of letters, short stories and diaries. The damp does no harm; indeed moisture is actually helpful to the yellow cracking pages of my Penguin green detective volumes.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot  Credit: Lisa Swarna Khanna

Initially I used books as an escape from my demanding mother. She would bang on the lavatory door: “Come out, you’ve been in there an ages. I know you’re reading!” She was right. Later, when I was nursing my firstborn, she arrived to provide a grandmother’s help and found me reading a novel.

“But no one reads a novel in the morning!” she objected. It wasn’t that she didn’t read books herself but she regarded them as a pleasure only to be indulged in when the daily business of life was dealt with; an added extra.

For me they aren’t an added extra. They are a perpetual presence. I feel uneasy if I take a train or even a bus or underground without a book along with me. 

The more we read of the Wellcome contenders, the more the concept of what constitutes ‘the human condition’ became the overall consideration. We have considered books that explain complex medical and scientific matters, each of them severely factual yet expressed with style and sometimes humour.

But we have also read works of the imagination that illuminate ways in which individuals have been treated and mis-treated by their fellows. What all the books have in common is they make their way into the brain, where they make their impact at the deepest level of human understanding.  At that point different genres cease to exist.

Our shortlist distils the best of all our reading. There are books of agonising personal experience: The Outrun by Amy Liptrot charts how her battle with alcoholism brought her to an isolated Scottish Island;  Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love tells how a sibling’s accident led her and her family to seek out the realities and even find comfort in loss.

Wellcome Book Prize 2016 - judges with shortlist Credit: Ben Gilbert

There are books by medical experts who bring new insights to baffling conditions: Neurotribes by Steven Silberman tells us more than has previously been known about autism. Suzanne O’ Sullivan’s It’s all in Your Head proposes that many medical conditions are in fact psychosomatic.

Sarah Moss’s engrossing novel unfolds the tensions in the life of a woman doctor in the 1880s. And Alex Pheby’s Playthings immerses us in the sources and possible consequences of schizophrenia. Each book found its way into the heart of every juror. I was personally moved by every one of them, covering, as they do, mental health issues and the news insights currently emerging in the world of neuroscience.

Our discussions were long and thoughtful, echoing the pleasure known to a million book groups around the country. And we are all delighted that our considerations will now draw public attention to such wonderful books and further the work of the Wellcome Trust and the renown of Wellcome Collection.