It rips my life away, but it’s a great escape…
I HAD A SPOT OF LUCK the other day – I caught a cold.
It wasn’t so bad a cold, just bad enough to stop me working.
And I got it on a sunny day, meaning I could sit in the garden with a book.
The book I had to sit in the garden with – Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje – was a very good one.
Which meant I could sit in the garden in the sun with a very good book and read all day.
I told you I was lucky. Because what my cold had given me was the certainty that I would now be happy for the day. Not so shabby, eh?
It’s not an exaggeration for me to state that I would find this life much, much harder without books. So far, they have been one of my few truly reliable sources of happiness in this world and, since I first learned to read, my constant and true companions.
I was a classic ‘head stuck in a book’ kid and, as an adult, I still read scores of them every year.
Literary novels, historical novels, crime novels, spy novels, fantasy novels, sci-fi novels, comic novels, memoirs, histories, autobiographies, biographies, books about politics, health, sport and self-help: I go through ’em all like a locust at the Plagues of Egypt.
I remember, my Mum used to yell if I bought a book down to the meal table, and shout at me generally for living too much on the page and not enough off it. Which is ironic, as it was she who took me to my first library.
Wood End Library in Greenford. It was – and, happily, still is – a large but simple 1930s one-storey building, with a parquet floor and imposing dark wood shelving.
I haven’t been there in more than 40 years, but I remember the two formidable sets of doors that you had to negotiate before you could get in, back in the 1970s.
The external ones gave onto a small, square lobby, and beyond that was a set of In and Out doors clamped tight to either side of the great oak issuing desk.
With their thick, dimpled glass panels, these doors acted like an airlock, shutting out noise and light from the real world and transforming the inner library into a kind of submarine realm, through which we would float silently around the imposing shelves.
The issuing desk also had something of the sea about it. The size and sheen of a small old fishing boat, it was cargoed with trolleys of displaced books and space-hungry boxes stuffed with hundreds of tiny cardboard envelopes, each containing a sheaf of borrowers’ cards.
The desk gave the place serene order, piloting us through the process of acquiring our treasure in book form, plotting our courses in and out of the reading world and the outside world. And I already knew which world I preferred.
Thanks to the library, I began devouring entire shoals of books, although exactly what I read, I just can’t remember any more.
I do recall, later on, zipping through Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings novels and Michael Hardcastle’s Mark Fox books, charting the rise of a promising young footballer.
I loved – and still grow misty-eyed about – The Silver Sword, by Ian Serraillier, a novel about a family of Polish refugee children trying to find their parents after World War Two. It introduced me to the things that, often, I still seek out in a novel: an historic, exotic setting, kindness amid hardship, protagonists who are trying to be happy.
Overall, though, I don’t have anywhere near the same recall of my childhood reading as a Lucy Mangan, whose memoir Bookworm is an exhaustive (and, I found, somewhat exhausting) reclamation of what she was getting down from the bookshelves, almost from the start.
Which makes me think that it was back then in my childhood I became the reader that I am now: avid, quick, but not careful enough. Inclined too read too quickly, but not too well.
I suspect that I may have treated reading as an escape more than anything back then: a quiet excuse not to engage with my difficult family and, to a point, the wider world. As the Blind Melon song puts it, reading is a great escape that can rip your life away, and literary merit probably took a back seat to feeling safe.
These days, for all my easy threshing of entire middlebrow series such as the Sharpe, Rebus and Shardlake novels, I have never got very far with hard books, like Ulysses, Infinite Jest or even The Master and Margarita.
I did read the whole of War And Peace one 1980s summer break, on the long bus ride to and from a job in West Drayton. But if you asked me now to describe it, I could say little more than: ‘Russia. Posh people. Napoleonic War.’
Most of Shakespeare – apart from what I needed to study at school – is unread by me, while Hardy and Proust left me cold and I can’t even get into a modern genius like Zadie Smith.
Perhaps, deep down, my reading is still a therapeutic rather than a purely literary endeavour.
Certainly, over the years, I have used it as a way to reset my often overwrought brain at the end of almost every day: a chance to escape my thoughts and worries for a while and live in a completely different world.
To be able to stop thinking about myself for at least a while every day has been a gift beyond measure and, in that sense, reading has helped me keep my sanity.
Maybe the fact that I can’t attempt a lot of so-called classic novels also has something to do with my need to feel comfortable with what I am reading, which is a mental health rather than an artistic consideration.
So I don’t get along with Ulysses because the sentences are intended to be difficult, and challenge isn’t top of my want list when it comes to choosing a soothing bedtime companion. In addition I don’t want to relate to characters who seem too odd, or different from me.
At the same time, I love books for what is in them, and not just what they can do for me.
I’m more than alive to the beauty in the precision of an Updike phrase, or the joy and pain of Anna Karenina’s illicit love affair, even if it is set almost 150 years ago, in pre-revolutionary Russia.
And if I do tend too much to the safe, the easy, or the middlebrow, it doesn’t meant there’s not some fantastic writing to be had.
One of my favourites, the now sadly late Philip Kerr, combined a mastery of period detail, plot and Updike-esque phrase-making in his Bernie Gunther series of detective novels set in and around the Nazi period in Germany.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a better denouement than the way Gunther escapes a horrid, squishy death in A German Requiem, while an early phrase describing the way a brutal policeman types reports – like squashing ants with his fingers – will stay with me for as long as I am able to remember anything.
So whether they are soothing the fevered brain, or serving up exquisite little Madeleines of pleasure, books have done a lot – a hell of a lot – for me.
I say: roll on the next cold, the next Ondaatje, the next happy day in the garden.