Season 2, 008: Scenes from our reading lives: What books (given, lent, lost, found, shared, annotated, more) - or memories of reading/being read to - are at the heart of our own stories?
In 2003, my partner and I arrived in the high, thin air of Mexico City at the start of a year long adventure. The culture shock was massive, a combination of altitude, the bustle of 10 million people, unfamiliar food, smells, faces and so much noise. The hostel overlooked the Zocalo, with its Spanish colonial buildings sitting on top of an aztec temple, the main square of the city. I felt homesick, shocked and disoriented and searched for the familiar. We travelled lightly and the hostel had a shelf full of books left by travellers coming and going from all parts of Central America. I found a battered copy of McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy, a story of his travels around Southern Ireland. I took it with me when we hopped on the bus south to the Mayan riviera and read it cover to cover on the 20 hour journey imagining the green fields of west cork as we drive along the parched Mexican highways scattered with cacti and dust. Arriving in Playa del Carmen in Yucatan with its turquoise sea and blazing white beaches and another hostel, I swapped my book for another battered novel and lay reading in a hammock. That carried me on to a jungle traveller village in Guatemala with an open air jungle canopy bathroom and howler monkeys in the trees as I sat reading on the loo. And so it went. I read, I passed my book on, I swapped and shared battered books with global travellers all the way through Belize, through LA and onward to Fiji, on campsites and hostels across New Zealand and Australia. The comfort blanket of novels and autobiographies and books I never dreamed I would read. Adventure, poetry, classics. Anything that was there- I was open to it all. I have never read so widely and prolifically even during my literature degree. I had no expectations, no requirements, I just read what was available and there for me. No judgement. My final swap was in a hotel on the Khao San Road in Bangkok after winding our way through south east Asia. I ended my journey and flight back to London with another story of travel, another story of wandering in Ireland. The books carried me, were my blanket, my thread, my familiar, my safety in a year of absolute freedom and uncertainty.
There were no books in our house. No, that’s not correct, there were books, but they were locked in the bedroom of the random uncle, and that meant I wasn’t allowed even to see them on their shelves.
The random uncle had been swept up with us when our house in the East End was slum-cleared and we were moved to the red-brick housing estate box. The books he brought with him glittered in my imagination, I knew I wanted to read, the picture books at school were already dead weight. There was treasure behind that bedroom door.
Then the RAF accepted him and he was no longer part of our family. I was the youngest but the complications of gender, relationship and noisy nightmares meant that I was moved into his room. I held my breath as I followed my bedding through that door for the first time, the books were still there! Instantly, in that golden moment, my world expanded 5…. 10…100 times.
There was nothing here that would be considered a childrens book, the uncle was a frustrated traveller, here were foreign lands, strange places, people with different coloured skin. Yet the greatest joy was that there were no librarians to send me back to replace my choice of books on the shelves because they were ‘too old for me’, the ongoing battle I had at the public library.
Nights became adventures, I saved precious pocket-money for torch batteries, I took flight from that unheated bedroom, landing softly (don’t let parents know I’m not asleep) in Africa, Canada, Australia. In the morning I went richer to school, knowing my teachers for what they were, they wanted to ground me in Sunderland. I tolerated their leaden feet, come nightfall, I could journey once more.
Once or twice a term, the teacher would hand out the Scholastic Book Club catalogue for us to take home. I studied this document with great care and my heart pounded as I compiled a library in my mind from its contents. I looked with envy as the ordered books were handed out to others and carelessly slung into slumped backpacks. I dreamed of one day knowing this kind of extravagance.
But, I was also acutely aware that it would not be fair to ask my mother for a book from one of these catalogues. The sensitive second child, it would have pained me to see the anguish mar her face when she would have to tell me that it would not be possible. And so, to this day, I don’t know from where I summoned the courage to ask for one. But one book compelled me, magnetised me, and I knew that I had to have it. Admittedly, the reasons were far from literary. I was nine years old and the cover was the most glorious shade of purple and my middle name was in the title and this seemed reason enough. Mum said yes.
The air was thick with summer heat and humidity and the clouds were heavy boulders hung low in the sky the day my book arrived. Fat drops of rain splotched on to the concrete path as I ran the last hundred metres home, thunder rumbling and pushing me on. Straight to my room I went and lifted my book from my bag. The storm crashed down as I began reading the opening pages of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and the course of my life was sealed.
Now, as a secondary school English teacher and mother to a girl named Charlotte, many copies of Jane Eyre live in my library but there is still something that draws me to that purple cover from all those long years ago.
Judy Blume – Forever
Michael had a penis named Ralph and none of the moms knew about it, these moms who trusted Judy Blume because of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? and Tiger Eyes. But my seventh grade friends and I sure knew about Ralph. We read and reread Forever, the story of first love and lost virginity between Michael and Katherine. Love starved, nearly knock-kneed skinny, told by an uncle that I looked like Olive Oyl, by others that I was a carpenter’s dream: flat as a board and never been nailed. (Every decade has its own version of 7th grade awful.)
I was sure a boy would never love me the way Michael loved Katherine. Filled with longing, remarkably insecure, intrigued by sex, overruled by terror, craving a tenderness that I wasn’t sure existed. Nice men narwhal-like, heard of but ever so rarely seen. My early efforts at trying to attract my own Michael were laughable: I bought a one piece bathing suit with plunging neckline and leopard skin print to wear while prancing around the Apollo Pool, gnawing on my Charleston Chews and picking the red remainders of Swedish fish out of my braces, always hoping that when I came up out of the water nothing came out of my nose. Lying on my towel, waiting to be adored, flat enough to be mistaken for African safari roadkill.
Looking back now at 54, it would be easy to be sad that this was something I wanted at that age and sadder still that it was something I thought didn’t exist. Instead, a kind smile for that girl whose aches made her foolish and clumsy. She learned to write her own story.
The Nonsense of Edward Lear
Dancing magical letters on a page – my Nan's description of going from confused symbol onlooker to avid reader. ‘One day it clicked’, she would demonstrate finger to thumb. I heard the story many times, often as I gripped my little blue readers journal ‘cause for concern’ scratched within it.
It must have confused my parents, because we traveled many places via book spines before bedtime, my shyness had got us all into trouble. The issues remained non-the-less; salty streaks of heat as I stood on a plastic brown chair, unable to spell rhinoceros with a horrified small faced audience. Still it haunts me. Even as the results from my Bachelor’s degree pinged into my inbox, subject: English language & literature, I shivered at the memory of words once twisting unpleasantly.
But there was one person who always made sense to me, with lyrics like spinning tops and sparkling sweets in my mind; Edward Lear. Complete Nonsense & Other Verse for breaking through to sanity. To me and my stoic friend (Rosey bear); lots of honey wrapped up in money was indeed the best way to escape reality. And, as an adult living in a canal boat, a pea green boat is definitely the best vehicle to get there.
I keep a second-hand copy. It is a brilliantly insane yellow at my bedside, just in case my dreams run quiet and the night grows tall. Limerick is often dismissed as a writing structure, but if possible, you shouldn’t turn away a smile. Poetry is self-aware, offering extra space to the reader, add some fun and it’s freedom. Edward Lear twirls you in and creates movement in your mind; happiness bubbling the brain.
So, my Nan was telling the truth, because Lear’s words, they danced - by the light of the moon.
The stories of Raymond Carver
The first shock was the cover. I’d remembered a series of small images, mini-lino prints, of everyday scenes, domestic scenes. In fact there were only eight images, and two of them were of a whisky bottle and a glass. In the others, figures were disembodied: legs, arms, the back view of two people in a car. The faces that could be seen had harsh black slits for eyes, for a mouth.
And then I opened the book, and memory went awry. I’d written a date on the fly leaf: May 1985. I was 25. This couldn’t be. I’d convinced myself I’d bought this book when I was at university.
I left university in 1981.
I read a few lines of the first story. The language is spare, sparse: a waitress describes serving a very large man in a restaurant. I remembered reading it in 1985: my amazement at what the simplest language could achieve. The lack of similes, of metaphor, made the emotional impact of the stories even more intense. This was real. This was true. I believed every word. Nothing was wasted. I absorbed the stories as if by osmosis, and wondered how he did it. The stories were perfect. His words described the quiet desperation of the characters in a way I had never seen before, the loneliness, the alcoholism, the despair.
1985. The year I had my first abortion. The year I lost my job. The year I woke up in many strange beds around the city, wondering if I had the money in my pocket to get home. I never made the connection between the life I was leading and the stories I was reading.
Many things have changed.
But looking back, it can sometimes seem as if, in that year, I was sleepwalking: a bit part player in my own life. Like a Raymond Carver character, hungover, staring into space.
I drove in hard memory nails into those fifteen pages; a stash of words that have stalked me and unleashed the past, calling out my name. Those words took me by the hand and ragdoll shook me; an out of control moment that left its mark.
It was a happy time, family knitted together, warming each others needs. Four wheels treading the road to a seaside of possibilities. West Scottish coast scent- seeping into the car; a week to roam in my books and stick family together. A sea salt sanctuary, lashings of waves and wonder to tease and taste. I chose the chilled air of early morning to tour the pages of Robert James Waller. A wave of time had washed up this book and beached it into my hands. " Love from Ted " 2004. A scribbled sentiment once written from a friend, a lover ....... I chose, A Canticle for Roadcat. A short essay about a cat that drifted into Robert's life and shared time and place with him; becoming a trusted companion for many years. The story provoked my togetherness; a tsunami of words tore into me causing a shock wave which rippled through my body. A sob big enough to suck the moon from orbit erupted inside me. The words smote me, stroked me with pathos. I ran for open space, soothing sea and a sprinkle of calm, but the sobbing would not stop. The flimsy, weak handles of the baggage I carried broke and spilled over into the streets of Seaside Town.
Can words alone grasp one with such intensity? Was it a collision of state of mind; of place, end of journey expectation and my jangled up bag of DNA controlling the moment? Those pages have remained shut.
We were supposed to sit still, but I was so delighted I’d wriggle like a puppy and halfway through the story I would slide inch by inch off the cushion onto the cool grass, ending up with green ankles and knickers. The teacher with the kind eyes and a voice like honey read to us every afternoon that summer term, as the sun tickled my face and it was too hot to be inside.
I felt sick in my tummy every morning before school, even in those days. At lunch time I’d stand with my back to the wall, watching the other kids play games. In class, they made naughty children sit next to me, as a kind of punishment. I would invent all kinds of ailments to keep me at home. If that didn’t work I would hide in the woods, lurk in the park, or hang around the shops, anything to avoid going to school. I stayed in the shadows; nobody noticed me.
But Stig of the Dump changed all that. I longed to hear what Barney had been up to, the lonely boy with his imaginary friend. If I missed a day at school that meant I missed a chapter, and if I missed a chapter I would never know what happened in the end.
The teacher with the kind eyes and soft voice got sick, a few days before the summer holidays began. I begged the supply teacher to read Stig of the Dump, but he was a hard, uncompromising man more used to unruly pupils.
Half a century later I realise I never did find out what happened in the end.
Reading and I have become estranged, and it picks at my peace of mind.
My earliest memories were of bedtime stories read by my mum. Her mouth topsy turvy as I stared up from my pillow, her lips kneading and spilling words that toppled down to my ears like confetti. From the age of 6, my little life became nestled snug in the corners of wild and whimsical stories. Illicitly, at night, I would snake a desk lamp into my wardrobe, closing the door so only a chink of light betrayed me and curl up beneath the dress hems and shirt tails to scuttle between pages. When I was older, I would traipse over the fields to find a tree beneath whose boughs I could read for hours in peace.
I did my A-level paper on Iain Banks’s the Wasp Factory. My mother bought me tickets to see him talk. She had dressed up with due reverence for those ‘intellectuals’ who would surely be in attendance and was shocked that he held forth in a dingy pub, populated by eclectic fans of his science fiction writing; he was fabulous and kind, a seismic imagination in wool and corduroy.
My 20s, leading a vagabond and often solitary life, a book would be my companion for a few short weeks, then left on trains and buses a gift to a new home as my backpack could hold no more.
Now, in my 40s in my own home, the walls are so full of books, but they are not mine. My small collection minimal, drowned out, lingering neglected on the nightstand. My husband’s reading is dominant, voluminous. Mine, intensely private and small - but insistent – tapping on my heart like a grief until I carve a space for it once more.
I often search the Internet for a particular edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But all I really remember is that it was chunky, yellowish with grey lettering and illustrations, so finding it will be pure luck. For years I refused to buy another copy, longingly waiting to come across that edition I used to own, hoping to restore it to my library and alongside the book regain something else lost a long time ago too: a sense of home. My budding library, 30 books at most, was thrown away when I was 19 by people who just wanted me and my meagre possessions out of the flat I had lived in all my life. Thirty years on, I can say that losing all my books then was more traumatic than having to leave that flat, because already at that point in my life my books were my home.
I was the only reader in my family, and yet I have been shaping my life around books ever since I could read. I began with the very few books within my reach, but when I started to really want to choose what I read public libraries were not enough – I became very greedy about surrounding myself with my own books. My family was disintegrating, and my library became something to hold on to. As most young teenagers, I had very little money of my own. That copy of Huckleberry Finn was in English, bought from the British Council in Lisbon, imported and expensive. I probably spent all my monthly allowance on it. It became the cornerstone of my library and of my life as I wanted it to be, in a way. That is why it meant so much to me and why I am still looking for it.
We were a disjointed, disconnected, and damaged family who shared a love of reading yet it never managed to bind us with even the slither of a thread.
My father would typically buy his books, rather than borrow; however, the rest of us were frequently found in the old village library, hurriedly searching for new adventures to brighten our otherwise depressing and desperate lives. Each of choosing to take our separate secret journeys away from the seemingly mapped-out route that we were on.
Reading by candlelight well into the wee hours was the only way to partake of my adventures, for to be found doing anything other than 'working' was to be a glutton for punishment. Not that I minded, of course, for squeezing into an old cupboard with the flickering light and golden glow of a candle only added to the magic of it all!
Until I read this post of Tanya's, I had long since stopped thinking about the beautiful tales of the Silver Brumbies, written by award-winning author Elyne Mitchell, that enticed me deep into the Australian Alps for many otherwise harrowing years! Followed by the timeless work of Enid Blyton.
I have been in awe of the magic of the written word all of my life, and I feel that it is why I believed that becoming a writer was so far out of my reach. Writing assignments while studying didn't pose a threat but trying to capture a moment or two in time was easier with a pencil or paintbrush than words.
Since reading The Cure for Sleep, I am beginning to realise that it is high time I tried!
There is an exquisite intensity to the tiredness in the early months of first-time motherhood. You haven’t the foreknowledge for it to tarnish into all the tiredness that there will be, the years of broken sleep, the decades. You are tired beyond all previous imagining, but you do imagine it will end. It must, surely?
During that time, I found myself in the library near our new home. It was warm, the librarians were friendly, and there was a shelf of parenting books. I knew I didn’t want to be told to leave my baby to cry, but I felt I should linger there, show willing. A pale, novel-sized paperback caught my eye. A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, by Rachel Cusk. I’d read one of her stories, a million years ago. Perhaps she had something for me.
So I borrowed it, and read it, cover to cover, during a day of epic breastfeeding, the three of us on the sofa. Me, the baby, and Rachel. Rachel knew it all, knew all about the darkness lurking under the tiredness; the contrast between imagined ranks of immaculate, blissed-out mothers and my increasingly fragile self; the existential angst in the small hours. And the guilt at this. Oh, the guilt!
And as I read, I realised that my favourite passages had the page corners turned down. Someone had literally been here before me, had felt the same connection – someone possibly in the next street. The isolation I had felt was whisked away, once by the book and now by this unknown person – and their proximity.
The next week, I set up a group for local parents. Over the months that followed, as I got to know each exhausted mother, I wondered: was it you? Did your fingers turn down those corners? What the hell do we do now?
Tanya, I feel this will be the first of many pieces I write as I go through my changing "bibliography". Thank you for the space and the prompt x
Thank you for this response, such a nice way to wake up this morning. Have you ever written about the reading her books and then ending up living there? It is always fascinating when these connections happen.
My favourite book? Most impact? The one I would give to others?
Impossible tasks; all three.
Books are my favourite things next to people and pets and swimming. So, books about water and animals and relationships, ah now you’re talking! But just don’t ask me to choose between them.
Reading is as much part of me as the clothes I wear and the air I breathe. If I was to be too unwell to read I would ask for a reader to sit with me; with the stack of books I always have by my bed and delve into whichever one took my fancy in that moment.
Without reading I would no doubt feel more alone. In fact this was put to the test when we travelled in France, Spain and Portugal in our campervan. I had a kindle by necessity as then I could escape into different worlds by a click. This would break the loneliness and isolation of travel with a depressed partner and a language I had minimal grasp of .
Of course this would be no substitute for a trip to the library, leaving with a too heavy bag, full of books to soothe, to ease the difficulty of living I had found through the years.
Books found on shelves under gardens; self help ; travel; craft; cookery ; psychology ; parenting; history. Each binding me to others somehow. To the struggles, to the questions, to the solutions they had found. Could some of these work for me? It didn’t so much matter, what mattered was that we were now together in this pursuit. And that in that library I could see individuals who looked lost too, and those who were on a mission, driven and ordered and organised. Sometimes this would scare me just a bit, make me feel less than. Usually though it would comfort me and remind me that my little home up the road was nearby. It was near to this smell, these strangers, the familiar librarian, the click of the date stamp the collection of CD’s and the magazines.
Returning from travelling I comforted myself with visits to charity shops and became a member of the library before we had a new home, before I started work again. To surround myself once more with fictitious people, pets and problems to be solved.
Synchronicity? Some people would say it doesn’t exist. That coincidences occur but have no meaning. And to assert that they are, in some way, ‘symbolic’, is pure fallacy.
I feel sorry for the sceptics. They’ll never experience that flutter inside; the recognition that something greater than the logical brain is intervening to tell you to trust your heart.
How else could I explain the landing of a poem into my sphere of attention, exactly when I needed it? Every word fitting perfectly into place. Every line a reflection of my soul’s ache. Buried deep in pain from shouldering responsibilities for other people’s wellbeing, I’d lost sight of my spirit.
Eight years earlier, I’d gifted myself a short career break. Alongside a mentor, I started to explore the craft of nature writing and vowed to continue with this thread after returning to work. Frayed by the realities of managing a step-family and a challenging professional role, my plan unravelled.
My mentor’s monthly newsletter continued to drop into my inbox, each update ending with a poem. This one was accompanied by an intriguing illustration- a dark-eyed woman immersed in undergrowth, surrounded by wild beasts, snakes, snails and animal skulls. Black and white, except for her heart- anatomically drawn, coloured blood-red. Pulsating off the page.
That was the giveaway. Thank you, Joy Harjo, for releasing “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet” into the Universe. And to my mentor, for channelling it towards me at just the right time.
Ah wow Tanya such beautiful and kind words it's such an honour to be part of this community ! 💗🙏☘️I can't say that enough
It has really opened me up to others and my own writting and made this year something really wonderful and connecting in so many ways .
I hope you have a gorgeous time with mum and the very best Christmas with your family .
How lucky we are to have this time to enjoy !xxx