Wednesday 16 January 2013

One Writer’s Relationship with Books

How it all began
There have always been books. Every house I’ve lived in has had books. As a very young child, before I could read, I had my own collection. I loved people to read to me and soon I knew the books so well that the pictures were enough to remind me of the whole story.
My father was the youngest of nine and we actually lived with his mother. This meant that there were always other members of the extended family present, including my cousins, all older than me, and all knowing how to read.
I gathered reading was about staring at the page for a long time before you moved on to the next one.
Soon, though, I wanted more and nagged my father to teach me how to read. He had no idea how to do that but I learnt a little: how to identify “the “and “a” and my mother taught me to read the names of all the shops we visited daily.  
Learning to read
I can’t actually remember a lot about that. I remember a few flashcards, then Dick and Dora books – I’m too old even for Janet and John. However the latter were around and my parents bought them for me as a supplement for my own reading scheme. You just needed to be able to turn the little black marks on the page into words. I progressed quickly through the books, I’m told.
Leaving the reading scheme
That was an absolute joy. Now I got to choose my own books.  If I was ever ill – and I was quite often until they took my tonsils out - my father would buy me a new book. And oh, the disappointment the day he bought me one I’d already got. Once I could read, I couldn’t get enough books. We had to do something.
The library
Thank goodness for the library. At West Bromwich in the 1950’s it seemed rather grand. A dramatic staircase led to the children’s department upstairs. We were only allowed three books at a time. One particular Easter holiday, I borrowed three books every day and got through most of the Famous Five books and the Mallory Towers ones before I went back to school. There were no more Famous Five books so I had to write my own. By some process of osmosis I knew how to write just like Blyton.
Ha ha! Did my writing career begin then? No, not really. An infant school teacher called in my parents: she was concerned because I kept writing horror stories.
The lean years
But I was still reading, just not for leisure any more, apart from the odd magazine.  At Grammar School it was Shakepeare, Dickens, H.G. Wells, James Joyce, Browning and Wordsworth. Later at university it was Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Brecht, Bőll, Kafka, Hugo, Flaubert, Zola, Sartre, Molière and Baudelaire.
Nevertheless, after a few years of domesticity the trips to the library and the reading for leisure came back.
And now?
I can go shopping for an essential item of clothing and come back with a book instead, without feeling at all guilty. 
I have a Kindle, which I love, and it is always loaded up with about thirty “to be read” books. I still have shelves full of books – those I cannot bring myself to throw away, including several signed copies, and those yet to be read. I try to refrain from buying more hard copy books but it doesn’t work. I have forty-five waiting to be read: ones I’ve picked up at book launches, on special offer at conferences, second-hand at some worthy fund-raising event, or those with too attractive a cover to ignore. And I also have books from the library. I fear retiring in case I can’t afford to buy more books and I finish everything I’d want to read from the library. I still read in several other languages because I can.    
I just don’t get these life-style TV shows about home-making that consider books clutter. To me nothing looks cosier or more welcoming than a room lined with books. Isn’t it also extra insulation?  
I’m a very fast reader these days and I’m also very critical. I find it hard to get rid of the jabbering editorial voice. Very occasionally it happens and I find a book that is an absolute wow. But none of this robs me of enjoyment.
My default activity is reading.  
I’m a lecturer in English and Creative Writing and so am fortunate in having a day job in which reading plays an important part. I’m sure also that reading helps me be a better writer. That is also part of my day job. How lucky am I?          

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