I wouldn’t categorise myself as an academic (though a small, snobbish part of me aspires to be one), nor would I say I am a particularly literary person; by the measure of any ‘Top 100 Books to Read Before You Die’ I am not well read (26/100 of a list compiled by the BBC).
I am, however, a consumer of books, of words, and have been from a very young age.
I remember in school, there was a reading library with graded readers with brightly coloured stickers on their spines. I no longer remember the exact colour-order, but I remember flying through the grades, ending up on those with red stickers (the hardest) and loving all of them.
Possibly my proudest academic moment (to date) was when, as an eight year old, I took some kind of reading test, which determined (to my delight) that I had the ‘reading age’ of a 15 year old. I was thrilled beyond any reaction I’ve since had to the various certificates of academic competence received in later years.
ERIC was a geeky looking boy with a wide, beguiling grin and round-framed glasses. His face was slightly long and his hair was curly and ginger, piled up on top of his head. He wasn’t terribly popular, as I recall, but I adored him. Whenever I saw him, my heart would rejoice and my mind would enter a blissful state of Nirvana as I got ready to enjoy being in his presence.
He was a cartoon and accompanied (on a laminated sign) his name – an acrostic which stood for ‘Everyone Reading In Class’.
These were the halcyon days – those school days which people wax lyrical about as ‘The Best Days of Your Life’ (they weren’t, by the way, bar this one section, which rises gloriously above all else in my memories) – those days, trapped in a stifling, Victorian room with classmates who may or may not be friends (depending on whether you liked football, marbles, a particular magazine or game), a teacher who seemed insistent on giving far too many lessons on Nuffield Maths and not enough time for art, reading or cookery.
I remember the light flooding in from windows carefully positioned too high to be seen out of (thereby reducing distractions whilst maintaining ventilation and visibility) and staring at my teacher’s head without moving my eyes until it seemed she had a glowing aura around her and I could no longer discern her features.
But the days when ERIC was there were special. ERIC’s presence denoted a time to rush to the library corner and choose a book (or maybe pull a current read from your bag) and sit, in enforced-but-delightful silence, drinking in the words, knowing all the time that while this was going on, Real Lessons were postponed for half an hour.
Then there was the anguish akin to the Sunday Afternoon Blues, but far more acute, in trying to read faster and faster as the session came to an end; one eye on the page and one on the clock, watching the minutes tick away and the story seem more distant as my attention was divided, knowing all the time that I wasn’t doing myself any favours by emerging early from the World of The Book, but unable to help but pre-grieve the end of the session.
It was in school that I first learned (without knowing the coining of the phrase) about the Book Hangover – that period of inability to concentrate on anything else bar the bereft feeling of having come to the end of a great book and no longer being able to submerge oneself in its world; the feeling that there must be more and a stubborn refusal to believe that the story, the characters just ended with the author’s whim and the tying up of plot loops; the half-hearted attempts to imagine what else the characters might have gone on and done while the author was no longer paying attention (simultaneous with the sad realisation that whatever I came up with would never be as good or as valid by virtue of not being that author).
My affair with books began at an early age. I was a very serious student of books, allegedly even as a toddler (my Mum has a story that once, when being read a picture book by my Dad, upon turning to a page with a dog, he turned to me and told me “Look, a doggie” whereupon I promptly turned back to him and corrected him severely – “Dog.”) and through my childhood came up with ways to read and read and read, my appetite never quite being sated.
That my sister and I shared a room could be exploited, as her bedtime was earlier than mine, and although we went up ‘to bed’ at the same time, I would be left in my parent’s room, snuggled up in their massive bed with whichever book I was on at the time (this left my sister time and space to go to sleep without intervention, interruption or acts of terrorism* from her big sister, who would regularly delight in such activities) and read until she was asleep and it was my bedtime.
Usually one or the other parent would come up at the appointed time and unceremoniously take the book away and send me to my bed (their having cottoned on (particularly in summer) that if I was left with the book, it would be read in whatever available light there was, crouched on the bed, sneaking the curtains open or (more brazenly) leaning across the distance to lean on the windowsill) but occasionally, very occasionally, I would be quiet enough to be forgotten about, and I would silently revel in the glee that I had Longer To Read, until they came to bed, invariably to discover me, still awake, and still as reluctant to put down the book.
The bathroom was another place which could be (and was regularly) exploited as a source of words on page – a convenient windowsill next to the toilet and a never-used set of scales provided ample space to build piles and piles of conveniently reachable books; mostly Garfield, Peanuts or my Dad’s organ-building magazines, nonetheless, if I hadn’t taken a book in with me, there was plenty of other reading material available. And as for habits built in childhood (where the repeated banging on the door and the informing that “There’s a queue building out here – could you hurry up?” has now been stage-managed to a minimum) they die very hard, and if I’m ever in a bathroom without a book, in order to properly *ahem* conduct matters, I will read anything within reach – ingredients lists on toothpaste tubes or bottles of shampoo; instruction leaflets for medicines; in fact, any words left lying around will do the trick!
As for the rest of the house, I had no favourite place to read – all surfaces were fair game. If there were to be a particular favourite (though I loved them all, as they all provided the platform for diving into the World of Book) it was the apple tree at the bottom of the garden, which had a tree house (built by Dad) allowing access to the upper branches. One in particular was almost horizontal, and I relished springs, summers and autumns (in particular, as I could reach out and take an apple whenever I felt like it – from the first, small, sour, bright-green balls to the fully formed globes of sweetness and crunch) perched with my bum eventually getting used to the knobbles of the tree, at eye level with the windows of my first floor room, hidden by leaves and ensconced in Book.
|So it turns out I *can* provide my own illustrations...|
Combined, these elements provided a thoroughly book-rich childhood and allowed me (albeit voyeuristically) into entirely other worlds - growing up in Corfu (Gerald Durrell: ‘My Family and Other Animals’), boarding school (Enid Blyton: the St Claire’s stories), veterinary practice in Yorkshire (James Herriot: anything) – and counteracted (somewhat) the difficulties and challenges I faced in real life. Books were always an escape and I fled to them.
I don’t think it’s possible to have an unhealthy relationship with books (I take that back – the whole disgusting ‘Twilight’ mania just occurred to me). I don’t think it’s possible to have an unhealthy relationship with wholesome books – those which provide glimpses into other cultures, classes, areas of nature or life which would never otherwise be experienced.
It is thanks to books that I have an idea of what a London Gentleman’s Club might look like (Jules Verne: ‘Around the world in 80 days’) or life in America in the mid 1900s (Louisa May Alcott: ‘Little Women’) or home life in affluent Delhi before it was modernised (Madhur Jaffrey: ‘Climbing the Mango Trees’) or trying to survive the ravages of societal expectations in England in the 1800s (Jane Austin: ‘Pride and Prejudice’; Charles Dickens ‘Bleak House’) or what it’s like to free-dive (Tim Ecott: ‘Neutral Buoyancy’) or why New Yorkers are scared of goldfish (Lewis Thomas: ‘The Medusa and the Snail’).
It is through books that I know why the Golden Ratio is important (Alex Bellos: ‘Alex’s Adventures in Numberland’), how many impossible thoughts the Queen has before breakfast (Lewis Carroll: ‘Alice in Wonderland’), why Jonah ended up in a whale (The Bible), how many points a Quaffle is worth (J.K. Rowling: ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s [or ‘Sorceror’s’ if you’re American at home] Stone’ and How the Leopard Got His Spots (Rudyard Kipling).
It is in books that I know I can find (if I choose) the answers to 'Why does the caged bird sing'? or 'How do I kill a Mockingbird'? even 'Who is the Lord of the Flies', 'Where are the Wild Things'? or 'Who's the King of the Jungle' (no, I digress, that was a song)?
If you think carefully about it, the art of writing books is the reason our society has progressed – why we are not continually re-inventing the wheel and hearing from our parents that our grandfather did it differently – the knowledge is discovered and permanently stored in a format we can simply check out from the library (or, these days, look up on Wikipedia). This is the reason the loss of the library at Alexandria plunged the world into the Dark Ages and the reason we can consider ourselves so enlightened now.
Books are the repository for all human knowledge, thought and emotion (as well as, admittedly, tat, sensationalism and frippery). There is little about the human condition we cannot learn from books. The world around us is explored and documented and made available in written form. And it’s absolutely marvellous.
Added to which, the sheer historical nature of books is a thought more enormous than is nearly contemplatable. Books bridge decades, centuries and millennia with ease. Pause for a moment, though, to think and consider this – that section in a book written long ago which is building in tension and causes you to settle more comfortably into your nook and think “Oh goody, we’re getting to the exciting part” is a notion which has likely been thought by each reader at that very point. Readers spanning the world over. Readers through history. In the case of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (published 200 years ago this year) you may feel the same irritation at Mr Darcy’s demeanour as such people as Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln or one of the Beatles – any of whom might have read the book at some point.
In the case of (I can barely call them such, for they far exceed the term, but I have no better term to hand) stories like Homer’s Oddyssey, you may well be feeling the same plot-induced emotions as Cesars, Emperors and Kings.
This. Is. Breathtaking.
And all down to the power of words.
Thank you, ERIC.
*I once, in a fit of evil childish genius that to this day I have been unable to surpass (or determine the origin of) soaked my hand in cold water for 20 minutes, bearing the bone-numbing chill, so that I could sneak into my sister’s room as she tried to go to sleep and put the hand into bed across her sleepy stomach, whispering macabrely “This is what a dead hand feels like”. Needless to say, little sleep (on her part) and massive amounts of Trouble (on mine) ensued…