Under the covers Print E-mail
News - Final Word
Wednesday, 27 May 2015 08:05
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As a child I always took a book with me when we went visiting people as a family. Even if I never read it, I knew that it was there.

I read voraciously. Still do. The difference is that then I had no idea how to find a good book. They found me, by chance. Mary Ann Shaffer said that perhaps there is “some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”

Actually it still happens to me that way and when it doesn’t, I read anything I can lay my hands on – the label on a Marmite bottel, back of the cereal packet. See, this is the embarrassing result of a less than admirable compulsion – to read while I’m eating. And let me tell you, there is a huge difference between eating-while-you’re-reading and reading-while-you’re-eating.

In the process I’ve worked my way through many awful books. There are also a lot of so-called must-reads that I haven’t been able to finish; though I keep trying to every five years or so. I’m truly ashamed to say that Homer’s ‘Iliad’ has been one of those. I cannot do it. No matter how many times I try.

In any case, knowing that Homer is supposed to be a must-read only happened at university – many hundreds of books after I first started my compulsion. For the first time in my life I was offered a reading list. And that is how it came about that I was born at the age of 18 on the lawn in front of the Merensky Library when I read Jean Paul Sartre’s ‘Nausea’. Someone else wrote down exactly what I felt.

And what was I to do with that? I was taken outside of myself and then stuffed back in, “outsized now, and uneasy with the fit” as David Sedaris writes. Maybe, girlfriend, we read to find an expression of something we already know. After all, books are mirrors, as Carlos Ruiz Zafón, said and “you only see in them what you already have inside you”.

William Nicholson, who was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay of ‘Shadowlands’, which starred Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, made one of his characters say: “We read to know we’re not alone”. What has stayed with me for more than 20 years now, was not the plot of the movie, but this sudden knowing the quote brought.

James Baldwin said: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

In ‘The History Boys: The Film’, Alan Bennett said: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

Girlfriend, I cannot tell you how many times in my life I have tried to grab that elusive hand. Curious footnote here: The hand changes. I mean, it goes something like this. When I was too young to understand it, during a family holiday in Margate early on in high school, I read Marilyn French’s ‘The Women’s Room’. A vague sort of hand beckoned to me, untaken. Then I read it again 10 years later and took the hand with gusto. After another ten years I read it again and the hand wasn’t even there any more.

Am I saying you shouldn’t reread books? I don’t know. Maybe I am. Nevertheless, I do the re-reading and what I’m presented with is not so much a new take on the book as a new take on me.
In ‘Inkspell’ Cornelia Funke wrote that a book gets fatter when you’ve read it several times. “As if something were left between the pages every time you read it. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells . . . and then, when you look at the book again many years later, you find yourself there, too, a slightly younger self, slightly different, as if the book had preserved you like a pressed flower . . . both strange and familiar.”


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