Friday, 4 January 2013

I ♥ books

1992: Reading with a cat. What could be nicer?

When I set out to do the Eclectic Reader Challenge last January, reading 12 books in 11 different genres in a year seemed achievable. However, I hadn’t then decided to embark on the final year of my Open University degree. When I signed up in early September to study Course A300: 20th Century Texts, it became obvious I wouldn’t only be sacrificing writing time. The course has 16 set books, ranging from 1930s poetry to 1960s science fiction, and an infinite number of reference books. The amount of reading this requires reminds me of what a tutor said when I studied for a year at Edinburgh University as a mature student: “Reading for pleasure? We’ll soon knock that out of you.”

I hoped then, and still do, that he meant we would have so much course reading we’d have no time to read anything else. Because I can’t imagine ever not wanting to read. How dreadful it would be not to relish choosing the next book to take down from my shelf or select from the list on my Kindle, to no longer feel the thrill of starting that first page. Even if a book disappoints, I still get a sense of achievement at finishing it, and as a writer, it’s instructive working out what went wrong. And if it has been a satisfying read – what joy!  

Reading is a way of life for me, and when I look back to my childhood I can see why. So many memories connected with reading stand out in my mind.

This was c. 1967, so pardon the decor
My parents were (and still are) avid readers themselves, so they knew that with the right groundwork I could develop into one too. Admittedly, growing up as an only child in rural Dorset at a time when there were only three TV channels, I had little choice in the matter. I had to read or take up a sport (I’ll pause briefly for those of you who know me stop laughing at that idea.)

Mum worked as a hairdresser from home in those days, her ‘salon’ a room at the end of the house kitted out with a sink and two hairdryers on wheels. This being the 1960s, she mostly did shampoo-and-sets and the occasional perm, and when each customer’s hair had been put into rollers they sat under a dryer. When I was very young I would persuade some of them to forgo the pleasures offered by the magazines provided and instead read my storybooks to me. As I grew older I got pushier and insisted on reading out loud to a favoured few, the word ‘loud’ being apt – those hairdryers were very noisy.

The books in my primary school’s library – a large cupboard, really – were augmented by fortnightly visits from Dorset County Council’s mobile library or, as it was known then, the Library Van. I’d feel very grown-up climbing up the steps unaided, making my own choices, then cycling home with a basketful of books. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five were my heroes for a long time. I once announced to my parents that I wanted to be called George, though I don’t remember their response. 

Then I progressed to Blyton’s Malory Towers series. This resigned me to having a girl’s name but left me hankering after a boarding-school education with all the lacrosse and midnight feasts that came with it. Mum and Dad took me every Saturday to Beeches Bookshop in Salisbury. The lovely building is still there but Beeches closed down long ago. In the early ‘70s, though, it was stuffed to the rafters with books old and new, most in rows on open shelves, some so precious they were kept in locked glass-fronted cabinets. You could buy four hardback children’s books for £1, and they’d take them back later in part-exchange for yet more. Angela Brazil’s schoolgirl adventures, with titles like The Nicest Girl in the School and A Fourth Form Friendship, were already past their heyday by then but I didn’t care.
1969: I was a swot

When I was a teenager, there being no such thing as young adult fiction back then, I started reading what Mum read: crime fiction. The rest, as they say, is history.

I started this blog post intending to examine the difference between reading for pleasure and reading for study. It’s been hijacked by my childhood recollections, which probably means I’m older than I like to think. Anyway, I have a subject for another post now. In the meantime, what memories of childhood reading do you have?


  1. Great photos Janet. Like most adult readers, my love of books started as a child. I remember picking up books that were slightly too difficult for me, putting them down and then six months later or so I could read them.
    I think if you love books, then you are never bothered about being by yourself as there is something to do. I often wonder what people who don't read do with their time, which is probably very patronising as there are plenty of other things to do.
    The downside of loving books is a couple of times I've been caught on the bus or train with NOTHING TO READ. Torture!

  2. I cannot imagine life without reading and I can't remember much about my life before I could read aged about 4. I loved Enid Blyton's books, Malcolm Saville's books, The Secret Garden, The Katy books, Little Women and the other Alcott books, Heidi - I could go on ...

    The OU course looks very interesting. I did OU some years ago - 20th Century Texts sounds like an updated version of one I took - Literature in the Modern World - most enjoyable.

  3. I love the photos and the memories alongside them. I was the only person in the house that was a book worm, and have no idea where my love of books came from, as no one else in my family read books or had much time for them. I begged my mum to let me join the library and that was where I, too, discovered the Famous Five and Malory Towers. I so badly wanted to be Darrell! I always remember the comforting smell of the old library - the world of possibility that awaited in each story. It was my happy place!