My mother taught us three daughters to read by the time we were three. I didn’t realise how difficult this was until I tried and failed with my own children who had to wait until the more usual age of six. Whether as a result of this early practice or not I do not know, but I read very fast, going through normal fiction at 150 pages per hour, which will go down to 50 pph for the densest tome and much faster for the light weight or well known. I read about 250 books a year, a number that I think has been fairly constant throughout my life.
Books have saved me: they have always been there, ready to whisk me away to an unknown or even a familiar land. They take me away from reality and teach me, mostly without lecture or hectoring tone.
I remember picking my first adult book off the adult shelves and wondering what it was doing there. To be fair to the six year old it was purple and called “Five Little Pigs”. I picked up Agatha Christie and Alistair Maclean and read them voraciously and repeatedly until I was sick to the sight of them. I’ve never been able to read them since.
My sister went off to university and disposed of her childish things. She gave me two Airey Neaves and two Asimovs, unwittingly doing me a great favour and stimulating life long interests. However my relationship with books is not about a list of authors: it’s what the books do for me.
I have a selection of books that are my comfort blankets. When times are tough, or I’m feeling ill and I just want to cuddle with a book then I have a set of “go to” books; some are a series, a world in which I can immerse myself for a couple of weeks; others are individual stories; several make me cry. When I’m feeling unable to cry about whatever’s going on in my life a book can trigger the release of a good cry. Some are children’s books. A few are ones my mother read as a child. I’ve never stopped reading books for the young and find they can be more imaginative and magical than anything written for adults which in itself is a shame. My favourite librarian and I could happily spend an hour talking about books together if undisturbed by other customers.
About ten years ago I made the amazing discovery that I could not read all the books in the world that I wanted to before I died. Not even if I ceased doing anything else. Before then I had been a haphazard reader, going through my own library on repeat, scouring the shelves of my local library, ordering books from them as I felt like it. I read non fiction as well but noted how much more attention I needed to give. I had previously always finished books that I started on the basis that it might improve, giving up on only about five books in some twenty odd years.
A parallel thought process to this was the need to step out of my comfort zone, that reading and repeating might be comforting but it wasn’t stimulating. The same applied to films in a lesser degree. My parents who have yet to really discover DVDs would play the same videos until they wore out, such was their preference (and still is) for safety and comfort. I started off by banishing formulaic if enjoyable crime novels where the same detective cracks the same sort of cases each time in the same town and the same style with the slight personal development along the way. For me these stories have the comfort of the familiar without taking me anywhere the first few stories in a series haven’t been.
I started cataloguing my books online and vowed never to repeat a read until I have read all my fiction. I still haven’t managed to read all of them although I have not repeated. My fiction is now divided into the majority which I have read and the minority yet to read. Inevitably the easier lighter books have been done and the harder ones remain. I have managed to throw away a few hundred books in the process, teaching myself that if it hasn’t grabbed me in the first fifty pages then I can bin it without finishing it. I intersperse my own books with library books and books that I mostly buy from AbeBooks. I tend to buy second-hand and have always enjoyed a good rummage round a second-hand bookshop. That pleasure has been greatly diminished by the arrival of the internet and the ability to search bookshops the world over for the wanted book, subject only to an ability to pay the price. Currently most of the non-fiction I read is about counselling but random others slip through as and when I need a break. I have a book list with some hundreds of titles, gleaned by reviews, friends, cursory mentions in online articles and of courses books recommended by the author. It was the growth of this list that really made me realise how impossible my desire was to satiate.
I love the physical book. The old hardback that lasts for ever with the fading paper; the cheap and nasty paperback; the war prints with the yellowing paper; the really expensive ones I barely dare read; the different covers; the smell of musty books; the variety in size, colour, cover, design and hue; the memories a particular cover will have, even if the book itself is lost. Books brighten up a room and save the need for decorating.
None of this would be complete without mentioning my parents’ relationship with books. When they moved back to London my father managed to get rid of 1,000 books although he struggled over each and every one. It sounds like a lot but still he remains with some 6,000 odd. My parents bought a house that was double the size of their needs but sufficient to neatly house all the books which provide a comfort blanket to my father. He reserves just one bookcase for fiction which is always kept upstairs out of sight. The vast majority of his are history, economics and current affairs. Both my parents have become increasingly obsessed with thrillers and crime novels, which they call “crimmies”, reading an author thoroughly, completely and repeatedly until they get bored and replace him with another. Only the selected few works of fiction are allowed on the downstairs shelves like Bronte and Kipling. Some of my reading joys overlap with my parents and led from theirs, others are a natural opposite.
Books are so vitally important: they educate through stories as well as non-fiction; they comfort and provide succour. They stimulate through presenting topics in multi-faceted ways, whether it’s thinking about sociology through science-fiction or reading the graphic novel version of “The Origin of the Species”. There is no need for text books to be the dull tomes they usually are. Books have saved me and they will continue to save me. They will also continue to delight, provoke, prod, entertain and make me laugh. No wonder they’re so important.