I was talking to my sister last night. We were both voracious readers as children, my sister to the point she used to rob books from the library. She’s shaking her head now as I tell her I’m writing this – why would she steal books from a library? We can’t remember. She feels terrible about it. This is how good a person she is.
There was a period of about five or six years – it ended recently – where I stopped reading fiction. I don’t know why, it wasn’t a conscious decision. I was being pregnant and having children for a lot of this time; I could only read in snatches. I’d always choose some dastardly health book about how not to die. Now I think about it, one of them was actually called How Not To Die. I also read some shocking unputdownable memoirs; I particularly favoured the medical sort, as is in fashion now. I read quite a few books about dying, about dying patients and end-of-life care. Possibly a delayed reaction to seeing my father die. He wasn’t ready and it wasn’t peaceful for him. I’d read the odd poem, usually by Mary Oliver or Walt Whitman. And lots of cookery books; I’d gaze at recipes and think how great life would be if I cooked like that, or if I could somehow magically have all the ingredients in my cupboard without having to go to the supermarket.
Mentally, I was living in a kind of a nightmare world, I think. I see that now my brain is being soothed by reading fiction again. It is so much more nourishing, to me, than the other stuff I was reading. The towering Maya Angelou said: ‘When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.’ Wow. Doesn’t that say so much? The life-giving power of literature. Yes! It resurrects you, it gives you life! If you recognise something about yourself in a great work of art, if you learn something about yourself; if you discover that you are not alone. If you just let your ear and heart fall around the words, let them wash over you like a cool shower, leaving you forever changed in some way. It’s glorious. Reading is glorious and I’ve rediscovered how much I used to love it, how I used to fall into it, how it made me glad to be alive.
What on earth was I doing not reading stories when, growing up, they were my lifeblood? And yes, as Maya Angelou says, it helps you gain a sense of yourself in the world. It helps you understand the world and your place in it. I do have a lot of information in my head now about what causes high cholesterol, or what to eat to offset dementia, or what the gut microbiome actually is – but hell! None of it is as useful or memorable as learning as a young child about death and renewal, and how precious life is, from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, or the power of the mind to be first flattened, then galvanised into overcoming any obstacle, as I found out in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. On deep and passionate friendship, neglect, death, security and the pure, redemptive love of a guardian – Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian had a profound effect on me as a child and has remained in my consciousness ever since. Or finding out as a teenager that Holden Caulfield found things equally as shit as I did, and for that matter, Hamlet did too; and that the pedestrian minutiae of life and relationships could be both comic and wholly revealing about human nature, as Jane Austen taught me. Charlotte Bronte, who put such poetry to isolation and depression in Jane Eyre, and let us soar up again as Jane found love. The breathless delight, the sheer chutzpah, the utter fun that is Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle.
These are some of the books I read as a child, each becoming part of who I am, each parenting me in some way, too. In childhood, I could not be dragged away from books. Now as I plough deeper into adulthood, into middle age – as I sail closer to that unknown horizon, where life morphs into something else, I think: I just want to read, read, read. There is so much to learn. I am at 0.000000000001% of what I want to learn about humans on earth, and it’s all there to be revealed, in words, in stories, inside books.