Listening to some of the programming in the BBC’s Love to Read season got me thinking about my relationship with books…
I don’t know how old I was when I started reading. I do know that once I did get going, I devoured books like a steam train furnace eats coke. “Feed me! Feed me!” I howled, ratcheting through a book a day. Our neighbour trundled along our street with cardboard boxes full of her grown-up daughters’ cast-off Enid Blytons. After every tale of little Noddy had been hoovered up, there were the Find-Outers (always read in my head as the Finders-Out which seemed much more logical), then the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Adventure series, and many more. Boxes and boxes of hardbacks with beautiful illustrated covers, many of them probably first editions. A natural ingrate, I repaid the debt by ruining the wedding photos for the books’ former owners as a scowling bridesmaid.
Meanwhile my mother brought home a paperback a day to feed my furious appetite, bought from the book and magazine stand in Baker Street Station on her way home from work: the chronicles of Narnia, the Chalet School series, Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit. When I wasn’t pursuing my other early passion and saving up to buy a 7″ single (each one cost 7/6d, three weeks’ pocket money), I would take my half crown to Woolsworth and buy the abridged children’s classics: Little Women, What Katy Did, Heidi, Jane Eyre. Every evening I read, lying upside-down on the sofa with my legs up the wall because there wasn’t room to lie along it with four younger siblings and three adults all trying to find a seat. The books gave me a space. They were my force field.
What happened to all those books? I don’t remember us ever having a proper bookcase at home: there just wasn’t room. I do remember some books jostling side-by-side with boxes of toys on a shelf in the ‘playroom’ (more properly ‘the badly-built Marley wooden extension which let in rain and made everything mouldy’). Some will have been passed to my siblings who also read, though not like me, and then on to children of other families we knew, perhaps. Some were probably left when the house was sold – abandoned to the attic-colonised-by-squirrels that no-one would clear.
Libraries also featured heavily in my reading history. I joined the public library at 7 and insisted on borrowing John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as my first ever loan, because it was the thickest book in the children’s section. My mother declared to the librarian that I would never read it. So I obstinately trudged through to the end, though I can’t say it taught me any lasting moral lessons. Our school library provided more reading and this time it included non-fiction, something I’d only really encountered at home in the set of New Book of Knowledge encyclopaedias we had. Though there was also my favourite, Amusement in Mathematics which the inscription in the endpapers announced as a Christmas present from my engineer grandfather to my (resolutely unmathematical) mother.
With all this reading, it must have been a surprise to some that I failed my English Lit O-Level. The problem was that I was reading anything except what was on the curriculum. French novels in translation were a favourite: Colette, Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terrible. Affectedly, I carried around Camus’ L’Etranger at school, and my English teacher unwisely seized on my apparent enthusiasm for existentialist literature and plied me with Sartre. All this off-curriculum reading (plus an always interesting teenage social life) and it was inevitable that Shakespeare would take second place. Actually I was grateful for that later – when I did finally read Shakespeare and Chaucer at evening classes as a mature student, I was ready to appreciate them. The classics are wasted on schoolchildren.
My reading habit kept me company when I found myself pregnant and living in an unfamiliar town, without friends, employment or television at the age of seventeen. I joined the local library (my partner had to sign the form as my guarantor as I wasn’t classified as a responsible adult) and worked my way through their stocks of P.G. Wodehouse, sometimes reading six books in a day. When my second daughter was a year old, having moved even further away from family and friends to another town, I got myself a job in the public library as an assistant. “Why have you applied for this job?” I was asked at the interview. Apparently “because I love books” was the wrong answer – “it’s more about customer service,” I was told. But I found that loving books did help. I could recommend things to readers. I knew where to find things when people asked. I made the connections.
I worked in libraries, on and off, for the next fifteen years. In fact, I work in a library now, though not as a librarian. I have a beautiful bookcase too, shelves lining a whole wall of my dining room, built by my husband as a moving-in present and now fourteen years old. But about ten years ago something happened to stop me reading: I finished my PhD.
“What are you looking forward to when you finish?” people used to ask, and I’d say “Reading a book that doesn’t feel like work.” Nine years of university study as a mature student with two daughters, house-keeping responsibilities, and a part-time job, and reading had become work: a necessary task to fit into often quite small slivers of time. I had my viva. I passed without corrections. I went home and… nothing. I couldn’t read. I could manage a newspaper, or a magazine, or a webpage. But the sustained focus needed for a novel had deserted me.
It took years to get back to reading fiction as a habit, and even now I have long periods where it takes me days to get through a chapter. I can read on holiday, but at home I still have to remind myself that reading fiction isn’t a guilty treat: it’s a long-necessary part of life. I read mostly on a Kindle, which makes it easier to read in bed (no more heavy hardbacks clunking on my face when I fall asleep mid-page), and also to have more than one book on the go at once.
Sometimes I even find that I can give myself up to the book again now, as I could when I was a child. Last night I sat up in bed till 2.30am, unable to put down the Kindle until the narrative was done. I read on and on, not because I had to know what happened next, but because I was enjoying the act of reading so much that I didn’t want it to end. The book was The Cast Iron Shore by Linda Grant, and the pleasure it gave me is unquantifiable, though the immaculate writing and extraordinary level of research are very much worth a mention. Most of all, I think it was the sublime feeling of transportation when an eye-pop of detail takes you seamlessly from observer to partaker in the characters’ world: “But we always fell asleep holding hands. It was our way.” In that pair of sentences, the book opened a crack in the fabric of my here and now and I glided through into the space it had made for me.