After a reader (thanks, Jennifer) reminded me, in a comment to “advice for girls,” that reading is pretty damn important I was vaguely appalled that I hadn’t included ‘read a lot! read everything!’ in my advice. To make up for it, here’s a wee thing I wrote many years ago about the joys of reading.
DOING IT FOR PLEASURE
Reading isn’t everything–it’s not meat and drink, it’s not sex or a warm hearth–but it’s a lot. I need it. I do it often. I do it for pleasure.
Pleasure is a many-roomed mansion. Sometimes it’s the urgent need for distraction–from fear or pain or grief. During my last stay in hospital, I read four books a day. I would have read more if I’d had them to hand. Story can make claustrophobia, discomfort, and anxiety bearable; I’m not sure I could bear to get on a plane without a book. Sometimes the pleasure of reading is in learning, formal or otherwise: history, biology, linguistics; how people think and what people feel; what the Antarctic really looks like. Most of my vocabulary comes from books. I spent my childhood believing fatigue was “fatty-gyoo;” I was probably twenty before I realised Pericles was not pronounced “Perry-kulls.” Once I discovered the OED and its handy pronunciation guides, such uncertainties vanished–though it didn’t and doesn’t help with proper names. Sometimes I read for vindication, the “Yes, yes, yes, I knew someone else once felt/thought/did this!” As a child it’s where I discovered that there are other people out there who don’t believe in god; who think cliffs are for climbing; who look at other girls and want to kiss them. It’s a way of connecting–forwards, backwards, and sideways–with the rest of the human race. Men in 350 BCE got hungry, had nightmares, told jokes. Women in Indonesia are impatient, daydream about shapes in the clouds, worry about their social standing. Teenagers of the future will experience the same rush of joy, the same belief in their absolute difference, the same pangs of insecurity and confusion that they have for millennia.
Reading also helps me connect and reconnect with myself. When I reread an old favourite, a ratty old paperback I’ve had since I was fifteen, say, I’m transported back in time, to the teenage me, the twentysomething me, the thirtysomething me. It’s not just the words doing the work, nor the memory of concepts conjured for the first time by those words, it’s the book as physical object that is the time capsule. I’ll reach page fifty three and find the yellowish stain that still smells faintly of the satsuma peel I dropped and trod onto the book by mistake when my mother shouted upstairs that it was my turn to set the table. On page one hundred and eight there’s a shred of tobacco from the cigarettes I used to roll for myself because I couldn’t afford tailor-mades. On page two hundred and twenty four I encounter that illegible paragraph where the beetroot from my sandwich slid from the bread and landed in its full, juicy glory across the page. I pause in my read, and remember the room I was in when I peeled the orange, rolled the cigarette, ate the sandwich: I hear the Pink Floyd on the radio (which even then was so ancient the AC connection was broken, and the batteries was so expensive I had to wire a bunch of other, smaller batteries together in series to make it work), smell the tea I was drinking, see the dust motes dancing in the air. I reconnect with all those past me’s that I wouldn’t otherwise visit.
When I think of reading, I often picture dust motes dancing in a beam of indoor sunlight because in my imagination the ideal reading experience is tied to luxuriating in warmth and peace. Most of the time, the image in my head is of being curled up on the carpet in a patch of sunshine with the book balanced on my knee and the perfect cup of tea steaming gently at my side. Sometimes in my mind’s eye I lie on my stomach before the fire, book flat in front of me, while outside an autumn storm rattles the windows but can’t find a way in. In these daydreams commuters struggle miserably to their jobs while I stroll through an ancient forest or stab an enemy in the gut or learn something interesting about the politics of conversion in seventh century Northumbria–pausing only to take another sip of tea or select just the right truffle from the box of chocolates. In these dreams there is no music but the rain in the gutter or the birds in the trees, no conversation but the dialogue in my head; I am perfectly alone, perfectly at peace.
Yet when I read, part of my pleasure is the knowledge that others have read the same words and been amused, educated, delighted, vindicated or connected, and I feel part of something bigger and richer and intensely exciting. When I put the book down, I go in search of a friend to talk to about the ideas or characters or places I’ve discovered. All my friends are readers. I wouldn’t have it any other way; readers are, in my opinion, better people for having spent much of their lives being amused, educated, delighted, vindicated and connected. If I ever found myself in one of those stories about a magic lamp, I wouldn’t ask the djinn for peace on earth or a cure for cancer, my wish would be to turn every person on this earth into someone who likes to read: someone who needs it, who does it often, who does it for pleasure.
Originally published in Central Booking.