For as long as I can remember, I have been a voracious reader. As a child I was seldom without a book and it is only on coming to write this that I have considered why this might be. At primary school I loved it when once a week, while at a primary school in Monifieth near Dundee, we walked to a different building and a nice lady read us classical stories from Greek and Roman myths. Perhaps that is where I developed my love of the spoken voice – a love that might explain my addiction to Radio 4. I loved the Famous Five and Secret Seven books written by Enid Blyton and read most nights under the bedcovers by torchlight!
When I transferred to secondary school in Broughty Ferry, I haunted the school library and had moved on to the lone Pine Club books by Malcolm Saville – they seemed a bit more grown up that the Enid Blyton fare – and Kathleen Fidler historical fiction. I went frequently to the library at lunchtimes to change my books and caused amazement in one of my peers when I revealed I read at least two books a week. I think what I loved about these books was the belonging, the being part of a gang and being able to have adventures. I had a peripatetic childhood, a product of my Dad’s job changes and the breakdown of my parents’ marriage – a rare happening in those faraway days. I’d had a tough time generally, culminating in Scotland with some nasty bullying and while I had friends, I was perpetually the outsider, the Julie-come-lately. It was hard to get in, to get accepted, to become part of the gang. Please note this is not a bullying-made-me-what-I-am whinge or a complaint about schools not dealing with it. The school did deal with it when my Dad finally found out and went to see the head teacher.
And so through secondary school, college and early days of teaching. I read generally, a lot of tosh and plenty of good stuff. A particular memory is lying on the settee to finish a Tale of Two Cities and dissolving in to great gulping sobs as Sidney Carton sacrificed himself for the woman he loved. I loved Jane Eyre and felt a visceral grief when I finished it. I can’t help it, I’m in love with Mr Rochester. I hated Wuthering Heights – all that chomping around moors and digging up dead bodies. I just couldn’t hack it but keep promising I’ll read it again with a more mature eye since I seem to be out of step with the whole English literati!
I read lots of children’s fiction so I could review it and recommend it to the kids I taught. One day a girl kept snickering in my middle school class and when I made enquiries I discovered she was reading Are you there God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I immediately borrowed it and giggled all the way through. Cue lots of Judy Blume reading and similar. I liked the sharing of books I enjoyed with the children.
Then I signed up for the OU and my reading was kick started again. Plenty of poetry and Shakespeare – which I turned out to be good at! Do they count? There were novels but my strongest memory is of how much I hated Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. God, it was tedious. Lots of holiday reading when I visited my dad in Spain and had to amuse myself during his long siestas and early nights. Some great – lots of police thrillers, Jonathan Kellerman a favourite, Faye Kellerman ditto – though she did start to get on my nerves a bit, Patricia Cornwell – you can see the way it’s going. Some absolute rubbish – I’ll name no names in case I get sued but suffice to say, I wondered how some of them ever got in print.
Then, joy of joys, my local Waterstones started a book club. I signed up straight away and it was great. It ran for seven weeks and the tutor paired books via themes or genre or other criteria and I learned and absorbed and wondered. I was in a gang and our adventures were books. It was a tough gig as we had to read two books each week and then go and have a discussion about them. I vividly remember dashing to read The Color Purple on the train to Manchester. But I learned to be more discerning, to see that Alice Walker couldn’t hold a candle to Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Are Watching God. I discovered writers like Kate Chopin – The Awakening, Flannery O’Connor – Wise Blood which I pictured as a black and white movie while I read, William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying. I might have come late to this party but I loved it. We had three cycles of the book club and then, calamity. The plug was pulled. I was heartbroken.
I’ve passed through the Harry Potters, loving them but seething with resentment that I hadn’t thought of it first and onwards to The Hunger Games Trilogy and Malorie Blackman and a range of the classics as I set them for extra reading for my Key Stage 4 groups.
I could not be without Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin – and if you haven’t read it you should. I’ve always been interested in the families left behind in these American high School massacres. What if your child is the assassin? It is beyond imagining but Lionel Shriver nails it. I can be a bit slow and I didn’t see the end coming until the last few pages. Cue more tears!
And so I tumble onwards. Holiday reading this year has encompassed Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Mid-Summer Morning with Gerald Brennan’s South from Granada waiting in the wings for a second read – these two a nod to my holiday life in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I’m trying not to finish The Saints of New York by RJ Ellory because I’m loving it so much and I have Gulliver’s Travels lined up next because I’m not sure I’ve ever read it.
In the village where I spend my summer holidays most people of my father’s generation cannot read or if they do it is pretty rudimentary. Many in my generation seem to be not a lot better. In all the time I have been coming here – ten years – I have rarely seen a local reading a book. I can’t imagine what this must be like.
Books open worlds, ideas, possibilities. They are friends, bolt holes and safe harbours.