What shaped my reading life

Being a family with four other siblings- I’d hide in my wardrobe to try have some peace from my annoying younger brothers (yes, they are just as annoying as adult brothers) and I would read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  It was my first feeling of total immersion in a book.  My dad would occasionally stick lollies on to the bush and tell us it was a secret bush that could grow anything you wanted it too, which only aided my imagination to create some crazy scenarios. I also loved Just William by Richmal, sometimes, I’d be eating an apple I’d stolen from the neighbour’s tree, which is the kind of thing William would do.  I was also, like him, perennially scruffy – to the point of almost embarrassing people.  I could walk down the street on the way to school and immediately just be a mess. 

There’s not much jeopardy in William’s world, so it’s kind of reassuring. But there is an aspect of wildness that was already removed from modern life by the time I got to it.  These kids have penknives and cut themselves, and they make fires and get into fights.  It’s all just part of the rough and tumble of life, which is probably why I love camping in Reggie so much.  I can act out the rough and adventure from my childhood stories. 

These stories that still stand up, but my daughter can’t get into them.  One of the things I think the newer generation lack is negative capability, when you open a book and don’t know what’s going on for a while but it’s OK, you live with it and keep reading.  These days, exposition happens right away.  You see it in movies, too.  My daughter is super clever and imaginative, but she’s not used to that approach to writing.

I must have read Alice in Wonderland about fifty times when I was a child. There was great rereading in it. But you never quite knew what it was. That playful, eluding quality was important to me- I loved the maths of it, among other things. It’s much more of an intellectual book than an emotional one, but to my young mind I didn’t get it. My brother’s girlfriend has recently bought me a copy of it to read again- as she assured me I didn’t read it right.

My mother came from a bookish house; my father, not so much. But he himself was interested in crosswords and dictionaries and languages. Certainly, Alice belonged more to my father’s kind of mindset than to hers.

Mum was quite disappointed that I didn’t love Wind in the Willows. That was interesting to me: a regret she had that I was wrong in some way. You could psychoanalyse it. I suppose the episode with Mr. Toad and the laundry woman, when he dresses up, was kind of interesting for a child, but really once it was read it was done. You got it. You never ‘got’ Alice.

I read Lolita in my teenage years because I thought I was going to get loads of information about sex.  I was disappointed.  But when I went back to it I found it to be an amazing book in the world changed around it.  It started off as a lesson in how to write beautifully: you write about desire, and it’s lyrical and trembling and wonderful.  Then, at the other end, 20 years later, you think: this is repugnant, and, the style itself is the attraction.

I read an essay on it where he said, actually guys, there’s no way around it: he’s a bit of a monster and the wrong monster to admire.  For me Nabokov is a lesson in how to stop before you go too far, about the temptations of style and solipsism.  That’s one of the risks of the writer.  I ‘m very interested in how you break out of solipsism in a book and how people finally make connections.

I read The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson in my teens and I think the reason I loved it so much – and still do – is that it taught me a person with a warm, witty voice could write about anything and it would be worth reading.  I think of Bill Bryson as one of my favourite authors, and just to drop it in again the book I co-authored knocked him off the number one spot last year. I mean that’s like still like a huge pinch me moment.  It also started my lifelong love of Americana and was my gateway into American literature. I’ve always aspired to his ability to turn a sentence, to summarise something deftly.  I regard him as a sort of governing angel of my prose and have done since I was 11.

In my mid 20s, I started to have moments of mental unrest, which I have never shied away from talking about.  One of my management techniques was reading, it’s those moments I felt the most repose. 

It was around then that I rediscovered Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and what a beautiful book.  On one level it’s a romance, which naturally speaks to romantic Frankie and I start imaging my Mr Darcy. On another level, it’s a very funny satire.  Although there is love, there is also (correctly) the cynical view that you’ve got to find a way to make money and live, and everyone makes certain compromises in order to do that.

One of the functions of reading is comfort and solace and returning to a familiar world, and I must have read Pride and Prejudice 20 times.  It’s beautifully written, obviously and I’m guilty to say how many editions I have of this book, every time I see the book in a second-hand store I must buy it, or I think I am leaving my Mr Darcy behind and therefore my happy ever after behind. 

I found American Tabloid by James Ellroy later in my twenties, and within about two pages I just could not believe what I was reading.  It was like having crime fiction mainlined into my veins.  All the mediation had gone: it was just the boiled down essence of genre writing, elevated to high art. 

It’s a story about a world of 1950/60s America which has been endlessly mythologised, and yet it has the freshness of a new take on it.  It’s full of morally questionable people, including perhaps my favourite character in all of fiction, Pete Bondrant, the 6’5″ Canadian mercenary who is a good guy, in the sense that he tries to have a certain moral code, but is also, you know, a gangster who kills people for money.  It’s a very violent novel that makes you question your enjoyment of violence, and knows it’s doing that.  It’s one of the books I always give to people.

I was obsessed with reading the classics, but I think the reason Jane Eyreby Charlotte Bronte stayed with me so strongly was that it was not the novel I was expecting. It was a love story, but also much, much more than that: an almost spiritual journey about a young woman trying to work out who she was and find her place in the world.  I can relate to that.  I’ve recently read it back again and found it a different novel.  Rochester annoyed me much more than the first time.

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbonis the first novel I remember reading where it was the beauty of the prose and the language that moved me as much as the story of the characters.  It introduced me to a part of Scotland I didn’t really know about.  It’s set in the North East of Scotland around the outbreak of the First World War.  The main character, Chris, grows up on a farm. It’s an impoverished environment, and her father is abusive.  She has a passion for education and wants to go the college but because of her family circumstances she can’t.  It’s often said Chris is a personification of Scotland itself, and reading Sunset Song played a part in shaping my worldview and my feelings about independence.

It’s only recently I have discovered Beloved by Toni Morrison.  I remember sitting in a cafe, probably trying to dodge studying for my law exams, and just being captivated by it.  I struggled at first: it was very different too much of what I was reading at the time.  But once I got used to the voice and style I was captivated. 

It’s the beauty of her writing, but also the depth of the emotions and experiences she describes.  I am one of these people who would much rather learn history through literature, and although I’d read a fair bit of nonfiction about the American civil war and slavery, this book deepening my understanding of the brutality of it, the deep scarring it left behind.  

There are lots more beautiful books I could tell you about- what are some of your favourites?

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