I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read or when books and reading weren’t part of my life. For me books have been an integral part of my life and it is to them that I probably owe the vast majority of my knowledge.
My own life in books is totally linked to my parent’s relationships with reading. Recently, I had a conversation with my mum and dad about my memories of learning to read, prompted by a discussion of my 4 year old niece’s reading skill. My mother, a retired primary school teacher who now obsesses over second hand books as a volunteer in an Oxfam bookshop, stated that she had been discouraged from reading as a child, as my grandparents saw reading as a waste of time – you could be contributing to the running of the house, not sitting about ‘doing nothing’. This has had a lasting impact on her – she does read, and she always encouraged my sister and I to, but whenever I envisage my mother reading it is of her, book slowly drooping, falling asleep in her chair. My father, an aeronautical engineer, brought up in working class Battersea, remembers books being important in his life – reading was actively encouraged. He reads every day, and always has a pile of library books ready by the side of the (unplugged at the wall) television. And it is my father who is integral to my first memories of reading.
My dad would read to my sister and I – she is 4 years older, so he had to choose something that would suit us both. Winnie the Pooh, My Naughty Little Sister (which my sister loved, because I was basically that naughty little sister), and most memorably The Hobbit, which led to my sister chasing me around the house as Gollum. Sat together on the sofa, it was over my father’s arm that I began to recognise words and read along.
Next in my memory are the journeys to Stevenage library on the back of my mum’s bike, then on the bus as I got older. I can still remember the smell of the library, the seemingly endless shelves of books, and the frustration that I could only take out a limited amount at a time. The visit to the library was a weekly occurrence and fundamental in my reading. I remember Dogger by Shirley Hughes which would make me weep, Stig of the Dump, Gobolino the Witch’s Cat, and Joan Aitken’s A Necklace of Raindrops and A Harp of Fishbones. As I write this The Silver Crown and the works of Margaret Mahy come to mind. The Chronicles of Narnia were cherished.
Reading was about experiencing as much as you could through your imagination. The worlds in my books were real to me – my imagination was fuelled and filled by their characters and narratives. Sometimes this went too far – my sister had had a Ladybird book of Dracula, which I used to sneakily read under the covers with my torch. This led to a short-lived obsession with vampire books which my mum curbed when she found garlic and a crucifix under my pillow! Dracula remains a firm favourite.
At school, reading became something that distinguished me from others – I didn’t have a tobacco tin of words to take home, I was allowed to go into the Junior building on my own to get a book from their library. I could already read competently when I started school, so I didn’t (thank God!) have to work my way through the antics of Roger Red Hat and Johnny Yellow Hat. I had read all of the older reading scheme before Junior School, and was able to inform my classmates that The Gay Dolphin was really rather disappointing.
The most pivotal point though in my reading life was my twelfth birthday, when my sister gave me a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, along with the comment ‘don’t let mum read it’. Novels became, with that one gift, something exciting, illicit, provocative. I started to devour more adult literature – when my sister started her A levels the next year she gave me her reading list and I worked through it. Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Jane Eyre immediately followed by Wide Sargasso Sea. The school librarian colluded with me, allowing me to take out books from the A level section, and also letting me take out as many at a time as I wanted. I have never been able to just read one book at once – there is always a pile of at least four books that I am reading at one time. Alongside these were the books I ‘found’ myself – spending my birthday money on one pound classics introduced me to A Picture of Dorian Gray, Kafka and Conrad. Terry Pratchett was also a great favourite, as were the works of Douglas Adams and Spike Milligan (my dad’s influence). When I was a sixth former it was my copies of Hanif Kureishi and Irvin Welsh’s work that I handed out to my friends to read, feeling infinitely cooler than them because of what I had read and the worldliness it had given me.
University led to a complicated relationship with books. Now they became something else – they were not just about pleasure, they were there to be involved with on another level, dissected, critiqued. It was in my second year that I took two modules that had the most impact on my reading of literature – the first was a disappointing course, where the lecturer decided to publicly dislike me and then preceded to write on my essay that I was ‘impolitic and impolite’ (although it did get a very good mark), however this didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the Native American Literature that we were studying. Louise Erdrich is one of the best writers I have ever come across and her work is beautifully evocative. The second was a course on Modernism with the best lecturer I had ever had – a man who’s passion for books had led him to the herculean task of trying to translate Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake into German. Here I had my mind changed by the poetry of H.D. and Gertrude Stein and I met the novel which has probably had the biggest impact on me, Ulysses. I have never been as totally consumed with a novel as I was with Ulysses – writing my essay on it, it took over, I was only reading Ulysses – I wasn’t eating or really sleeping, I was physically sick. My flat mates remember that I disappeared for those few days, emerging triumphant, but looking like crap, with my finished essay, the best I wrote at uni.
I also studied History at university – this means that my shelves are also peppered with texts on the history of medicine, technology, war and religion. A history of the Jews sits next to biographies of Hitler and Stalin, texts on the Gnostic Gospels, a history of misogyny, and works on the Industrial Revolution. These are the texts that further serve to fuel my need to feel like I am constantly learning, but also serve – along with all of my novels, plays, poetry, collections of speeches, writings on education, graphic novels, travel writing and everything else that finds its way on to my shelves – to illustrate how much there is to learn.
It took me a while to be able to read simply for pleasure after university – as an English teacher I still find it hard not to be constantly analysing as I read, underlining and annotating, folding over the pages. Every book I have ever read stays infinitely lodged in my mind, I rarely re-read, it is though they become my very own memories. My reading is often spurred on by one writer leading to another, for example my progression through DeLillo, Easton-Ellis, Franzen, Foster-Wallace, James Purdey and James Salter. Another motivation are those books I really should have read, The Golden Notebook, Daniel Deronda and Moby Dick being the most recent of these. But, ultimately my reading is motivated by a desire to know more and to lose myself in thinking about the world. Nothing can beat the impact of a great book – Primo Levi’s If This is a Man is perhaps the best example I can think of of a book that will change your perceptions completely. My current reading pile has some Roger McGough, Icelandic sagas, Terry Eagleton and Foster Wallace there to keep my brain moving.
I am glad that I can never remember a time when I wasn’t able to read.