Learning to read is one of those rites of passage that, unless it’s a particular struggle, goes unnoticed. And as someone who has never quite mastered numbers in any form, doing her lifelong, level best to avoid their challenge I sympathize hugely if words cause the same barrier as numbers provoke for me.
But if reading was simply something that was acquired along with learning to play in the infants playground, make potato prints and sit cross legged for ages at a time, it certainly wasn’t an event attached with bells and whistles and all forms of celebration.
Yet the difference!
The contribution to one’s life that reading brings!
The day that the ability to sit down and read a book, alone, in solitary splendour, is acquired, has to be the greatest and deserving of enormous accolade. I remember telling my son when he first learnt to read and needed no help to devour an entire book on his own that he never need be bored ever again. Providing there was access to books, to written material, boredom was redundant as a complaint.
And I am an obsessive reader – in that if there is no book to hand, I’ll read café menus, station timetables, maps and any paraphernalia that’s in view.
Although one stumbling block I do have is with instruction manuals. I hate reading instructions about how to set up, install, apply and operate any new device I might have acquired. I’m too impulsive and impatient and simply want the new device to work – to install itself and get on with making my life a little easier and more efficient.
But back to books.
And two days at the London Book Fair have been quite enough confirmation of the centrality and importance of books in contemporary times. The event felt overwhelming in size although seasoned visitors told me it was much smaller than in pre-covid days with many international companies staying away. I felt very much like the novice I was – and all my plans to go to numerous author sessions and talks were jettisoned rather rapidly as the noise and a certain claustrophobia of the place took over. But the atmosphere was vibrant, the few sessions I did attend well worthwhile and to see my latest novel, Miller Street SW22, displayed on the Matador stand was worth the ticket alone!
My own reading lately has spanned one New York Times bestseller author and two independent writers, all, coincidentally, American. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, originally published in 2011, captures the mood and essence of New York society in the late 1930s and is a compelling story that at times has overtones of Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. It is beautifully written with fascinating and compelling characters.
The Glimpse by Lis Bensley is a novel published by my own publisher, Matador, something I didn’t realise until it arrived, and this time the focus and setting is New York in the 1950s and the fevered and fascinating artistic world of Abstract Expressionism. The characters are interesting and the complexities of the relationship between mother and daughter very skilfully handled.
Finally, North of Highway 8 by Jacob R. Gardner is a very different novel, but no less intriguing, set in a remote area of north Wisconsin with a focus on the plight of contemporary rural America. Its style is direct and uncluttered and the climax surprising.
It’s such a cliché to say that novels open worlds for us that we barely knew existed. Just as it is equally commonplace to state that novels invite us to understand our own emotions and predicaments through viewing those of fictionalized characters.
But both these claims are so true. Our lives are, after all, simply stories to other people – and when we relate events of our lives to others we leave out the boring bits, concentrate on the crucial parts – just like authors writing novels.
I’ve never lost that excitement around books that I first felt as a young child, either visiting the library clutching my library tickets in happy anticipation of what I would find on the shelves or standing in a book shop with the thrill of a book token or cashed postal order in hand.
Of course, these days books are simply an easy click away on the computer, laptop or phone with Amazon sitting there, sidling up to snare us into expenditure.
But I still hold on to the far more sensual experience of books – or my nostalgic memory tricks me into it – of the smell of new books, crisp paper, unsullied covers, the orderly arrangement on bookshop or library shelves – and the delight of eventual decision and purchase.
Happy Reading and Happy Easter!