In honour of world book night…
I was woken by the thud of my father’s footsteps, heavy with fear, leaping up the stairs. I was about seven or eight. I looked at Dad through sleepy eyes. ‘Are you ok?’ he asked. Seeing that I was, his gaze dropped to the floor, and he started to laugh. At his feet was the heavy anthology of Fairy Tales I’d been reading in bed. I must’ve nodded off while reading, and had knocked the book out of bed while I fidgeted in my sleep. The noise had made my father think I’d fallen out of bed.
Books are no longer my match in weight. In fact, they get lighter and more portable by the year, as we further digitize and virtualize them, reading on everything from PCs and mobile phones, to tablets and purpose built e readers. They remain, however, a weighty presence in my life.
When I’m in a library or bookshop, with a mind far bigger than my left over life, a truth hits me. However voracious my literary appetite I will never scratch the surface of the pile of books I’d love to read. Not if I had ten lifetimes would I even finish the first room full. When I look out at the ocean I feel small, in a good way. The sheer hugeness is simply beautiful, and I feel a profound sense of space, aliveness, freedom. So too when I consider the number of books I want to read, there’s a sense of infinity, limitless potential for pleasure that thrills me.
Reflecting on this has made me a wildly irreverent reader, when it comes to my choices. When the should is stronger than the desire, I put it down. I have little enough reading time to spare. I refuse to spend any of it on something that does not excite me. That said, what excites me has evolved and widened, and it occurred to me that a healthy literary diet might be something worth cultivating.
Much as we are encouraged to eat our five a day of fresh fruit and vegetables, mightn’t it be of benefit to read from a variety of literary forms? Naturally, a daily intake would be difficult, but I have identified five literary categories, from which I try to read at least one book a month per month; non-fiction, autobiography/biography, children’s fiction, poetry and general fiction.
The amount of non-fiction I read has increased until the point where it is now what I read most of. Recent personal favourites have included: The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, which explores the wide ranging negative consequences of increasingly inequality; Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, a deeply researched and no holds barred warning regarding climate change; and The Tree Of Meaning, an enchanting collection of essays enthusing the roots of poetry being deep in the landscape of the earth. I also have several personal ‘bibles’ that I continue to re-read, such as The Gift by Lewis Hyde, Daring Greatly by Brené Brown and Writing To Change The World by Mary Pipher.
I read to learn, to better understand this world I live in and the people I ¬¬¬¬share it with, because I am deeply invested in helping to co-create a viable future for both. I believe the knowledge and consequent humility that I acquire by reading such books makes me more useful, even happier, as I make my peace with the world around me and seek to serve the well-being of the whole.
A good autobiography, or biography, is an opportunity to ‘meet’ people who inspire me but whom I’m unlikely ever to share tea and cake (or wine and tapas) with, while putting the world to rights. I like to follow the journey people have taken to get to where they are, and am often encouraged by the surprises and mistakes they met on the way. These lives have all proved rich in evidence for what I already know to be true but try hard to deny; it is the pain, the challenges, the fears faced and the hatred transformed that seeds greatness. Satish Kumar (Earth Pilgrim), Nelson Mandela (Long Walk To Freedom), Leonardo Da Vinci (Leonardo Da Vinci: The Flights Of The Mind), Maya Angelou (I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings) and Karen Armstrong (The Spiral Staircase) are just some of the people whose lives have touched me, not just through their remarkable achievements, but through the humble human journey of their lives.
Some might call Children’s Fiction a guilty pleasure, after all they released ‘adult versions’ of the Harry Potter series with more sedate covers to hide behind, but I feel no shame in reading it. I treasure the letter I received from David Almond in response to a gushing fan mail I sent him after reading a collection of his short stories (though of course it was Skellig that initially got me hooked). I sat front and centre when attending a talk by Michelle Paver, author of the Wolf Brother series, and am still planning a pilgrimage to the Roald Dahl museum. Children’s fiction keeps my imagination alive and my heart brave, my soul still connected to a place beyond cynicism. It’s medicine, and it’s marvelous.
Poetry is like dessert, rich and delicious but difficult to digest in large quantities. It remains my greatest love, and because I write it myself, when I read it I often find myself inwardly bowing, or shouting silently inside my thumping chest, ‘I want to do that!’
I spent an afternoon in the Scottish Poetry Library not long ago, and it felt like visiting a temple, or some other sacred space where we go to worship. When I left I was light footed, light headed and threatening to grow wings. I’d taken notes, laughed out loud and carefully protected precious volumes from falling tears. I shared space with old friends; Mary Oliver, John O Donohue, Ted Hughes, Walt Whitman, Rudyard Kipling; and met new (to me) masters; Kei Miller, Yehuda Anicha, Alice Oswald.
Perfect lines are felt viscerally by every cell in my body, rippling right down into my being and changing my perspective forever. The stick inside my mind to block old pathways by repeating themselves when I need a reminder, ‘And yet don’t look to good/nor talk too wise’. Any writing is capable of this of course, but for me it’s poetry that does it best. In these times of ever shortening attention spans, and overwhelmed diaries, a literary form that gives it brief and deep is to be appreciated.
And so to General Fiction, to books that soothe and sate, enrage and excite, to worlds and characters that accompany me on long indulgent journeys; it’s true that I prefer coach travel to planes because it lessens my carbon footprint, but really, how often otherwise do I get to luxuriate in reading a book form start to finish at a single sitting. I did this recently, on a journey from the Scottish Highlands down to South Devon, my able companion being Jamie Ford’s Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet.
My experience has been that it is novels that I feel myself building community around. Gifting or recommending someone a book is an intimate exchange. Three years ago I read When God Was A Rabbit, a book my father recommended to me and wrote to tell him how much I enjoyed it. In his emailed reply (he now spends the majority of the year in Bali) he shared that he was, ‘really pleased you like the book as it confirms for me that we are still on the same wavelength!’
I remember reading the first page of The Color Purple during my ‘A’ Levels. I couldn’t stop my tears and was furious at being made to read something so painful. I had a wonderful teacher, who encouraged and valued my emotional responses to what we read in class and we have remained friends since I left twenty years ago. Perhaps that too, is how novels create community. They soften us, make us more open and vulnerable, and therefore more capable and open to connection with those around us.
It was late, around 11pm and a school night. I should have been long asleep. Instead I was sobbing, loudly, unaware of anything but the world I was immersed in and the characters I was watching. Once again I was interrupted by my father who had heard my tears. ‘What’s the matter love?’ Unable to speak through my sobs, I held up the book I was reading. It was Goodnight Mr Tom and I was twelve. My father simply nodded, gave me a quick hug, and left me to it.