Once upon a time, boy meets girl. Fast forward, they are in bed, having sex:
Boy to girl: ‘Would you rather be reading a book?
Girl to boy: ‘Yes… would you rather be listening to music?
Boy to girl: ‘Yes’
Boy rolls over, finds headphones, turns on stereo
Girl reaches under bed, retrieves book, turns the page
There are those who escape by immersing themselves in the silence between the notes. And those who are transported by black lines on a white page. I’m from the latter species. That’s me reaching under the bed.
I grew up in a house where we read books. Every Saturday morning, my parents would take us to Swinton Library. Up the steps of the Victorian red-brick mansion, down to the children’s section. Even now, more than fifty years on, I can still see the shelves and the pock-marked ox-blood lino on the floors. We took our full allowance of six books; most weeks we read and returned them all. Books were respected; they lined the walls of our house. Maybe you can’t judge a book by its covers, but we certainly judged harshly those who didn’t even have the books in the first place. In later life I signed up to the famous John Waters philosophy:
One of the challenges of setting up home in a new place is the loss of the accumulated library. It represents my life: decades of buying books in airports, train stations, charity shops, boot sales. Thousands of books, testimony to hours spent waiting for flights, sitting on planes. At the end of one particular project in China, I took the slow route home, by train from Beijing to Ulan Bator to Irkutsk to Nizhny Novgorod and on to Moscow. Alone in my first class carriage, I reclined on the day-bed, looking out over endless barren steppes and snow-tipped silver birch forests. On that five day journey, I read 15 novels. Each time I reached the last page, I opened the carriage window and hurled the book to the winds, imagining some Mongolian horseman scooping it up, discovering the joys of Ian Banks’ Crow Road, Annie Proulx’s Shipping News, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Laura Esquivel’s Water for Chocolate. 1993, a great year for novels.
My biggest fear lay in the risk I might consume all my stocks before arrival in Moscow. One day to go, and I was down to my last book: The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields.
Even now, almost twenty years on, I can remember trying to slow down, savouring each word, reading aloud, forcing myself to look up and daydream. Anything to avoid the prospect of reaching ‘The End’ before reaching the end.
So here I am in Tunisia; with my Kindle. It’s changed my life. The library comes with me, as I learn to expand the e-book horizons, allowing myself to read several books at the same time. It’s become my browser, delivering intense hits of literary brilliance. This post was inspired by reading just the first few pages of Glyn Maxwell’s ‘On poetry’. Without my kindle I would never have entered his world. But there it was – somebody’s ‘book of the year’..with a great review. I saw it, checked it out, downloaded it. Immediate gratification.
It’s a sign of old age, the addition of poetry to the library. Oh God. It’s yet another sign that I have become my mother. When she was about 90 years old, living alone (still near Swinton) she got mugged while waiting for a bus. The guy grabbed her handbag. When she told the story, what upset my mother most was not the shock of the attack, the blow to the arm, the cutting of the strap on her shoulder bag, nor the theft of the money in her wallet. It was the loss of her library card. Ticket to another world.