World Book Day when readers of the world unite over the joy that books give them. I am definitely one of those people. Books have been a constant source of enjoyment and companionship in my life since I was knee high to a grasshopper and it's a love that shows no sign of abating.
This week I have attended a bookswapping teaparty, been to the library and added three or four titles to my profile at ReaditSwapit.com and finished two books. Books and food are my two greatest and constant sources of enjoyment in my life and I can't imagine a world where I don't want to read ever again.
I have written before about my love of Enid Blyton and the fact that the very first 'proper' book I ever remember reading was by her. I continued to read her books avidly while growing up, interspersing them with books about ponies. All these books featured a fantasy life of utter freedom as a child that I yearned for. It was so different to growing up in a city where you were frisked by the police to enter the main shopping street. Books about plucky middle class girls called Jill and Jinny and their horses enthralled me to the point that I would read under the covers by torchlight.
Even as I got older and started secondary school, I refused to be embarrassed by my bookishness, often being found in the library at lunchtime and always answering questions on set texts with enthusiasm. I had moved away from ponies and pixies and discovered Young Adult fiction such as Michelle Magorian, Bette Green and Judith Kerr who wrote well constructed and challenging literature that often helped me find solid ground in the rocky world of being a teenager. They also helped foster a fascination with America and its literature that would shape my life.
My later teens were characterised by studying English Literature at school and being taught by a wonderful teacher called Mrs Patterson who encouraged reading for love, not just to complete a syllabus. She allowed us to moan about set texts as long as we could do it more articulately than 'I don't like it'. I interspersed The Lord of the Flies and The Merchant of Venice with a preoccupation with James Joyce and John Steinbeck and this contrast meant I enjoyed GCSE literature so much it was inevitable I would study it at A Level.
New teachers at a new school encouraged me to read more Irish literature, making me realise my literary heritage for the first time. I also thrived on the grown up responsibility of reading for independent study, producing my extended A Level essay on American road novels after devouring 15 or 20 examples of them the summer I turned 18. This event that everyone else seemed to find so stressful had been a pleasure to me and cemented my desire to study American Literature at university. The fact I had to read Mansfield Park as an A Level set text simply confirmed this desire and made my first attempt to read Moby Dick almost bearable in comparison...
Just as I was about to embark on my dream of reading books all day for a reason while at uni, I became ill and had to abandon my plans to leave home. Bored and lonely, my local library became the centre of my world. I took 6 books out each week and read them all cover to cover. If there had been AirMiles for frequent reading, I'd have made it to Rio and back in six months. My horizons were still able to remain wide due to the fabulous selection of modern fiction and African American literature my library offered. Back in the days there were only 4 TV channels, books became a blessing in my life.
Four years later and literally a library worth of books later, that American Literature course was all mine. I revelled in reading a wide range of works even if I hated them, but began to question why every module involved reading The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick. You'd think there are no other books that have influenced American Literature. I did discover a lifelong love of Huckleberry Finn and Raymond Chandler, but two years in and five times through Melville's opus, I was losing the will to read.
I realised this shocking state of affairs when I went off to Waterstone's Piccadilly one day with my student loan burning a hole in my pocket and a list of needed books as long as my arm...and derived no pleasure whatsoever from the searching the shelves or stroking the smooth spines of a fresh book. All I felt was dread at having to read more James Fenimore Cooper novels in the same week as Sister Carrie and The Portrait of a Lady. I reacted maturely by opting to take a year out of university, never going back and not picking up a single book again for almost 2 years.
I didn't start to read again until I was homeless and had only two ways to spend my days...curled up (but cold) with a good book in my hostel or sat uncomfortably (but warm) in a library. Books became so important to me again that at one point I held library cards for 5 London boroughs so I had something to read no matter which friend I was imposing on without having to lug heavy books around. I could literally lose myself in a good book and forget how depressing and overwhelming my life was at the time. I began a love of crime fiction that felt illicit after never being allowed to study such things and I gained huge comfort from the fact that these books were filled with damaged and traumatised characters I could relate to at the time.
Strangely when I look back on that time in my life, I am grateful to it for bringing me back to books. I'm not sure I would have found a reason or the time to come back to reading as an adult otherwise. It has left me with a slightly blood thirsty love of trashy serial killer novels, but I am starting to move back towards the obsessive love of reading I had as a child who would have repeatedly read the back of the sauce bottle on the table if there was nothing else to hand. So what can you recommend I read next? What book has made your life that little bit more complete? Is there anything you think is a classic and I shouldn't miss? Tell me more...
For the Heroine Collective: Jean Rhys
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