28 Apr “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
At my best I always have at least one book on the go and a stack awaiting attention. I know I am not doing well, or have taken on too much if I have no desire to read.
Because it is part of who I am. I am a reader.
As a child I borrowed books. I hid books under the bedclothes. I sat up in bed and read Alice In Wonderland, marvelling at the creations and spectacle, and at the absence of plot. I revelled in the crazy imagination of Roald Dahl, and loved the adventurous, brave children I met in his tales. I found an author I loved and devoured everything they had written, keeping the light on late into the night when I really should have already been asleep. I read Anne Fine, and Dick King-Smith, Judy Blume and Lois Lowry.
We moved to Liverpool when I was eleven. For a few years I didn’t have many friends, and as a lonely extrovert, I sought companionship in stories. Stories to show me who I was, or who I could be. Stories to show me a world I had not seen. Stories to amuse me, to distract me, to comfort me.
As a teenager I read with gusto and great appetite. I read to learn and to be entertained, but mainly I read to escape and to re-imagine who I might be if my life hadn’t turned out like it had. My life seemed so middle-class and routine. So safe and suburban (although looking back now this seems far from the case). I read to speed my growing up, to mature. I was impatient. I read inappropriate books to learn about sex and relationships. I had no time for gradual awakenings, I wanted to know how it all worked – right now.
When I got home from school I read Shakespeare for fun, curled up against the radiator in my bedroom. Feeding off the obscure and unfamiliar language. Underlining and checking the appendices to enable myself to understand. I was reading E M Forster at 13, falling in love with the romance of A Room With A View, and the man who introduced me to it. I lived vicariously through characters and experiences that were not my own.
At sixth form I read Camus and Kerouac. I fell into J D Salinger.
At University, I took one module entitled Literature and Madness. Here I was introduced to Russian writers, Bulgakov and Dostoevsky, and authors who messed with form, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf.
In my mid-twenties I came across the writing of Donald Miller. Here was a man who seemed to have articulated what it felt like to be a Christian in the late twentieth century. Who knew my uncertainties and hesitations. I read with relief and recognition.
As I got further into my twenties, which were often dark days for me, I read less. I had no time, energy and had lost the ability to concentrate. As the responsibilities of being the main carer, feeder, washer, wiper and general domestic and emotional help become overwhelming, I lost the ability to read, and the compulsion to. I would find myself reading the same paragraph over and over again. Or I would entertain myself with glossy magazines to give my eyes something to look at as my brain gave up the ghost.
Now I am in a better place, and the demands on me have decreased (or at least become managable) I love to read again.
In the last two years I have read many times more books than I had managed in the ten before that. I read for fun, for the pleasure of words. I read fiction and theological books. I read poetry and essays. I read memoirs and books about how things work. I love to dive into new places and ideas, and to be rewarded by the strange and wonderful things I find.
I have a couple of friends who are my book people. They point me in the direction of things I wouldn’t automatically pick up for myself. Plays I haven’t heard of, writers who articulate the world in new and exciting ways, who point to truths that are seldom acknowledged.
Be warned, I am also a book bore. Spend too long with me and I will be thrusting on you the latest great thing I have read. Or you’ll find it pushed through your letter box, and me expectantly waiting to hear what you think. This year, about a decade after it became fashionable, a fellow bibliophile friend and myself have started a book club. Our monthly meetings are some of my most favourite nights. We’re all geeks together, drinking wine, eating cheese and being opinionated about stories. What could be better.
A List of Books I have Read and Loved
(definitely not definitive, in no particular order):
1. The Group by Mary McCarthy.
2. 1000 Gifts by Ann Voskamp.
3. The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace by Margaret Attwood.
4. Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
5. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
(This book was read aloud to me by a teacher at my primary school when I was about 10. I have never re-read it, and rarely met anyone else who knows it, but the story and way it made me feel has stayed with me ever since.)
6. Stitches, and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
(fyi. Stitches is my favourite book of the year so far. I’ve read it 3 times since Christmas.)
7. The Art of Possibility by Benjamin and Rosalind Zander.
(another I’ve re-read countless times)
8. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.
9. The Magicians Nephew by C S Lewis
10. Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay
11. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
(my favourite recent fictional release).
12. The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger
A Long Obdience in the Same Direction by Eugene H. Peterson
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell
Next in the pile:
Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
The Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges,
And the third in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet family saga, Confusion, for some light relief.
I love getting recommended books, I can always squeeze another book on the unsteady pile by my bed – what book have you loved? Let me know what treasures you have found.