In the middle bedroom of my mum’s house is a treasure trove. A collection of the books that me and my two sisters read when we were growing up. Oh, the adventures to be found. In one place is What-A-Mess, the Afghan hound who always ended up in a state, despite the purity of his breeding. In another is Mildred Hubble, the Worst Witch, who was perpetually disorganised, had her hair undone, was late for lessons, had her socks round her ankles and never quite got her spells right.
Each time I stay in that middle room, I pull another book out. Perhaps a tale of Narnia, the putting on of rings in an attic that takes the wearers to a strange pool, or a girl who goes to a party and picks all the jelly sweets and cream off the top of a trifle.
Something familiar joins these stories. A girl, who isn’t quite sure of herself. Perhaps it’s her general organisation, or her desire to look outside the limitations of the world around her. A girl who is fascinated by anything and everything, even if she isn’t always organised enough to put the right sock on her feet in the morning.
Yes, that’s me. While I was reading these books, clearly I was finding characters in which I found a mirror of myself. In the mornings, my mum would despair at getting me out of the door on time. At school, my teachers would despair at my lack of pencil, pen, homework, the general paraphernalia that always ended up a bit outside my capabilities. Most of it was because I was too distracted by a book, or the TV, or an idea I had, forever in the muddle of my ideas. These books helped me to identify my place in the world, and to get a sense of worth. Arriety and Mildred always had wonderful adventures.
What it also led me to discover was the power of the books I read when I was young. The top three books were there: Paddington, The Borrowers and Narnia. Not just one book, but anthologies, three collections of books that I read over and over, absorbing myself in the worlds that took my behind the clock with Arriety, into the home of the Browns with Paddington, and into another world with Polly and Digory.
There’s something strange about reading those same words, the ones I turned to so often when I was a child. For starters, it makes me feel bloody old. All too often, I don’t really think as myself as particularly grown up, but there’s nothing like a childhood book to remind you it was over twenty-five years since you last read a book. At the same time, it’s comforting. Snuggling down under a duvet, I can pretend I’m still in that place, sheltered by a secret world, where, at least for that moment, it felt like it only existed for me.
The magic of my childhood resided in books. I was also lucky enough to grow up with books; Steven King making my teenage years even more scary than they were anyway, and the Discworld providing light relief from teenage angst. In fact, I went on to write my dissertation about Terry Pratchett, so his influence stretched beyond spots and hormones.
Now, as a (sort of) adult, I continue to drown myself in words. Sometimes it’s the classics that I really should have read by now, other times it’s new fiction that’s just been released, or just random stuff recommended to me by other people. I find that I look more and more for people different to myself, to allow me to explore through books, rather than find solace in recognising something familiar.
What I’ve also come to realise is that, while my days are often shaped around reading (on the bus, before sleep, a sneaky few chapters over lunch) I have also been shaped by the books I read. My sense of adventure, encouraged by Arriety’s desire to see what was outside the door. My desire to create, boosted by Paddington’s stubborn insistence on getting to the end of whatever he was doing, no matter the outcome. There’s politics and social codes in there too. I’ve seen the world through the eyes of wizards, witches, homosexuals, Islamic fundamentalists, young children, old people, and perhaps most importantly, people from cultures I have never visited. I will never know what it’s like to be a Korean living in the US, or a Nigerian, or a Chinese person in the UK, but all of these voices have been experienced by my little lump of grey matter. Now that’s a powerful thing.
Reading goes far beyond providing a simple way to kill a few hours. It cannot match up to a film or a game, simply because, only in reading, are you active in constructing the meaning, shaping the world in your imagination that the words suggest to you.
That’s why, sorry everyone, I will continue to buy every most people I know a book for Christmas (I do hope you’re enjoying reading them!), because I want them, too, to be able to touch the spine of a treasured item, and recall the times that paper, ink and glue took them to places they never imagined.