I know books are not everyone’s ‘thing’, but for me they take precedence over any of the arts: Music, television, film, painting, sculpture, photography etc. Although I appreciate those mediums, I can only truly lose myself within the pages of a novel.
“Do you read for pleasure?” It’s a common enough question. Some do, some don’t and if you don’t, sorry; but I don’t ‘get you’. To be honest I find the question almost offensive in its banality. No I don’t I read for pleasure, I read to LIVE! I can’t exist in a world without books or stories. Words are as integral to me as air, as water, or as food. But reading is getting squeezed out of my life and as I get busier, my opportunities to read are becoming fewer and fewer. Time was, when I could lose myself in books for days, weeks even. That is not the case now and it’s frequently relegated to a stolen hour or a few pages at bedtime. It feels criminal to have let books, on the face of it, become such a small part of my life. But that’s not so. In reality they occupy a great deal more of me than perhaps they should. Cut me do I not bleed? the phrase goes. Cut me and I’ll probably bleed words.
I can’t remember a time when books weren’t part of my life. A weekly Friday evening trip to the library is an early memory for me; with my junior ticket bulging with cards from the books I was borrowing that week. I can still remember the thwack of the metal stamp, as it smacked the return by date onto the sheet in the front of the book. I can feel the shiny parquet floor that you could possibly skid the length of in your socks – if such frivolity in libraries had been allowed back then. And the smell, the wonderful smell of books. That distinctive aroma of a library: The mingling scent of Pledge, fantasy worlds, crime scenes, mythical creatures, chaste kisses, not so chaste kisses and far-off places that I would never go to – like Godalming. I’m 42 now and have still never been to Godalming. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a reason to go to Godalming, or Guildford for that matter. But I have been to Gloucester. I digress… I think at one point as a child, I thought I might like to be a librarian. But all the sex, drugs and rock and roll you have to do in that job put me off.
Then there were the books themselves. I must’ve read my way through hundreds, but I know now that I really didn’t push the boat out enough. That’s possibly the result of two things: 1) Having a small library and 2) being a bit of a creature of habit. Now I find that there are a million and one classic children’s books that I’ve never read: Tom’s Midnight Garden, the Wizard of Earthsea and Swallows and Amazons are just a few. Then there are those I had on my shelves, but never got all the way through: Black Beauty (horses…meh), The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Heidi – I’m ashamed to admit some of these!
But then again, there were those books I loved and that I carry the stories of even now: The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Railway Children, Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat, Elidor, Anne of Green Gables, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; The Hobbit, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, (it was the 70s, so anything by Roald Dahl), the Malory Towers series and The Little Witch. Oh how I loved The Little Witch! I have no idea how I came across that book and I never ever met anyone else who had read it – until 2000, when I moved to Ampthill and met my friend Lucy. She had! Finally, I was beginning to think that I’d imagined it. These days teenagers read Jacqueline Wilson, The Hunger Games, Twilight and a million and one other books that are out there for them. There has been an explosion of young adult fiction and that is wonderful. Back when I was a kid, your formative years were spent with Enid Blyton, E Nesbit, Roald Dahl and then you moved on to the Flowers in the Attic series. You think sparkly vampires are bad? Well, we grew up on a diet of poisoning and habitual incest! Never did me any… oh, it did. I think twice about eating sugared donuts.
On and on it’s gone into adulthood. Each book I read (if it’s doing its job right) transports me off into another place. I lose myself in books, almost enter the pages of them. Characters resonate in my head, I can see them, I can hear them. At first I read a new book like a starving woman, I almost inhale the prose. If it takes hold and gets into me it can turn into full-on gluttony; until a point about a third from the end when I realise I’m shortly going to run out of my drug! Then I slow down and the last few chapters are wallowed in, savoured, as I eke the last drops of pleasure from the story. And then it is over. The story is done. The end.
But it isn’t. By the magic of reading, the story will live on in the synapses of my brain. Characters, locations, phrases, words all infusing my head; colouring my world experience and adding to life’s rich tapestry. Stories are my life blood. I don’t need visual images, I can create enough of my own and books give me the raw materials to make them. Sometimes I won’t see a film or TV adaptation, because the book is too special to me or the characters too perfectly constructed within my own head for me to want to see someone else’s view of it. This is true of Tess of the D’Urbervilles; I can’t watch anything to do with that. But yet I can quite happily watch adaptations of Jane Austen – although, of course that’s so I can compare anyone else’s version of Darcy to Colin Firth. He’s no Colin Firth… No, quite. There is playing the role of Darcy… and then there’s Colin Firth.
At the moment I have three books on the go: Persuasion – Jane Austen, Game of Thrones – George R R Martin and Cosmopolis – Don DeLillo. Usually I’m a one-book-at-a-time girl, but now I’m in a bookgroup, I have to shoe-horn everything in, as and when I can. Persuasion I am reading for bookgroup, Game of Thrones I’m reading because I loved the TV series and I feel honour-bound to read the book. In my world it’s usually the other way around. Cosmopolis I’m reading because Robert Pattinson’s on the cover* and out of the three, that’s the book that is currently making my synapses fizz. I wasn’t supposed to be reading it yet, but I made the mistake of reading the first page and its hooks were in me. It’s glorious, I love it! It’s completely out of my comfort zone, my experience of where it’s set, the subject matter, or even my like of any characters; but the skill of the author shines through like neon. I don’t know if I’m meant to like the character of Eric Packer, but that seems irrelevant, because I adore the way he’s written. I love that every page gives my brain little WTF moments. It’s a true find of a book and just goes to show that it was a very good idea of Picador’s to peddle the ‘pretty man on the cover’ edition; because I wouldn’t have touched it otherwise and now I’m itching to read more by this man!
I realise that I have waxed lyrical long enough about the magic of stories. Of course, none of them would exist without the wonderful authors, who have put them down onto paper throughout history and enabled us to sit for days in our bathrobes while we go through the endless ‘just one more page’ routine. I am indebted more than I can ever say to these wonderful people. From Enid Blyton to Don DeLillo and from Jane Austen to Carole Matthews; each in their turn has lit up my head like a Christmas tree and dragged me off into another place from the comfort of my chair. Thank you to each and every one of you. May you live long and your book sales prosper.
Yesterday, on Twitter my friend Dee started to say thank you by re-writing the lyrics to Thank you for the music by ABBA. I’m sure someone else has already done this for books, but hey, we’re all about re-makes these days. So using what Dee started, I’ve added my bit and you can read Part 2 HERE.
*Yes I’m shallow and I have previous in this area.